All Hail

...the new king in town

2019 Photo: Tyler Carlton

That's not how this game was supposed to go.

Vegas said Minnesota would win at first. Then they said Michigan would win but only by a couple. But, honestly, it felt fair. Based on how 2019 ended and all of the disruptions so far this year, no one could argue that early line. I sure couldn't.

The track record of Jim Harbaugh's Michigan in road games against ranked opponents made this game seemingly easier to predict the outcome. Michigan is supposed to look overwhelmed. They're supposed to make clumsy mistakes. Harbaugh and company are supposed to be out coached. Michigan isn't supposed to do be prepared. They're not supposed to do what they did.

You could try and make the argument that that was then and this is now...that this is the next chapter of Harbaugh's Michigan. That for all of the chaos COVID has brought upon the world of college football over the last few months, somehow all of the right pieces have fallen into place for Michigan, this Michigan, to be able to find their groove and identity as a program in the sixth year of their heralded head coach.

Or...maybe it's just Joe Milton? Funny what a tall, fast, dynamic and poised quarterback can do for a football team.

The biggest knock on Harbaugh since coming to Michigan is that he's never had his quarterback. Jake Rudock in 2015 was a backup transfer from Iowa who only really hit his stride well into his one and only season in Ann Arbor. Harbaugh inherited Wilton Speight who had a decent year in 2016, but was ultimately a holdover from the Hoke administration. Houston transfer John O'Korn was probably never meant to be starting material. Shea Patterson, the transfer from Ole Miss was supposed to be that guy...the Michigan version of Andrew Luck...but that wish never came true.

Joe Milton is none of those guys. He's a Michigan Harbaugh QB recruit. Now in his third year at Michigan, and second under OC Josh Gattis, he's been groomed for this season. He beat out Dylan McCaffrey with room to spare by all much so McCaffrey has opted to transfer for next season.

From the very start last night, Milton looked like a guy who'd been the starter for a season or two. He wasn't shaky, he wasn't rattled...even though he was going up against a pretty good Minnesota defense (which finished 10th overall in 2019)...and even when the Gophers jumped out to that early lead and had all of the momentum. But Milton was cool and calm.

From the very start, Michigan seemed like a team that knew they were going to win the game. Ben Mason set the tone early with his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for blocking Minnesota's best linebacker well into the back of the bench well after the whistle. I had no problem with that penalty even though it killed Michigan's first drive and ultimately led to a blocked punt and Minnesota's first touchdown. But still, it set the tone. And Mason, one of the leaders on this team, sent a clear message that it doesn't matter who you were last year. This is 2020 and Michigan is clearly playing with a chip on their shoulder.

Don Brown, early in his Michigan career as DC was quoted once saying "solve your problems with aggression". Now in year 5, that's never been more the case. His defense lost some big pieces from a year ago, but it seems like they've only just reloaded. 

Aidan Hutchinson, Kwity Paye, Dax Hill, Josh Ross and Cam McGrone are all names we knew would make an impact this season. And they sure did last night. But it was the new names and names that have been buried on the depth chart the last couple of years that really shined. Brown rotated a ton of different personnel into the game, especially in the backfield. Michael Barrett, playing through some sort of stomach issue, had himself a day...highlighted by his sack and forced fumble on Tanner Morgan on Minnesota's second drive that was caught in midair by Donovan Jeter that really turned the momentum in Michigan's favor early on. Solve your problems with aggression.

But Michigan's offense is the story of this game. 

Hats off to Ed Warinner and his offensive line. This group lost 4 starters the NFL, but I think Michigan might've improved if that's possible. Five different Wolverines had at least five carries for almost 250 yards and 5 touchdowns led by Hassan Haskins who had 6 carries for 82 yards and 2 touchdowns. As a team, Michigan averaged 8.3 yards per carry (!)...highest average since Western Michigan in 2018. Milton was only sacked once, on the first drive when he was forced to scramble and was caught from behind. And with Ben Mason able to lead block on a lot of these zone read plays, that's just opens things up even more. 

Truly, and I don't say this lightly, maybe the most delightfully unexpected offensive line performances I can remember from Michigan maybe ever. Did not see that coming!

And speaking of Ben Mason, how about the fullback snagging Milton's only touchdown pass of the night and acrobatically flipping into the endzone for Michigan's third score?! So much Big Ten it's ridiculous.

The one obvious issue Michigan needs to address is placekicking. Word is Jake Moody was filling in for Quinn Nordin who was out with some sort of undisclosed injury...but he should be back and should be fine. Either way, those 3 missed field goals were the one let down that I guess sometimes can happen in a season opening game. The best time to find out you have a kicking issue is when you don't really need those points.

So here we go. The Jug is back in the Michigan trophy case. 2020 is off and running and all of the sudden, Michigan seems like a legit contender for the Big Ten and maybe beyond. Optimistic much? Maybe...but like I said, funny what having a truly gifted and dynamic quarterback (and aggressive defense and dominant OL) can do for you.

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