Ok youngin 19 I like ya game.— Taco Charlton (@TheSupremeTaco) October 25, 2020
No. 18 Michigan took it to No. 21 Minnesota in all four quarters on Saturday in Minneapolis, beating the Golden Gophers 49-24 Saturday night to capture the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers announced just before kickoff they would be playing without starters in all three phases of the game, including at right guard, offensive tackle, linebacker, both kicker positions and punter. Every absence made itself evident over the course of the game as the Wolverines improved to 42-4 over their rivals since 1968 with their third straight win in the series.
Ironically, it was Minnesota that struck first, taking a 7-0 lead after blocking a Michigan punt. The Wolverines responded right away with a 70-yard touchdown run by Zach Charbonnet aided by miscommunication on the second level of Minnesota defense.
Michigan's defense continually put Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan under pressure, and a blitz from the right side of the Minnesota line -- where the starters are missing -- resulted in Morgan being sacked and fumbling the ball right into the arms of Donovan Jeter, who took it to the house. Minnesota stemmed the bleeding with a field goal drive to make it 14-10, but Michigan returned the ensuing squib kick -- remember the missing kickoff specialist -- 65 yards to set up another touchdown.
After Michigan took a 28-17 lead late in the first half, Minnesota had a chance to close the gap. Knowing the Gophers would start the second half with the ball and playing without his punter, coach P.J. Fleck decided to run a fake punt at the Minnesota 30 on fourth down. It failed, and Michigan scored another touchdown a few plays later to take a 35-17 lead into the locker room.
The third quarter showed signs of life for the Gophers, as they opened the second half with a touchdown drive but couldn't stop the Wolverines from responding in kind. That was a theme throughout the night as the Michigan offense stopped itself more than Minnesota's defense did. Aside from a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter, the only time Michigan didn't score after its first possession was when it missed a field goal. It missed three overall, so at least the Michigan coaches have something to be angry about this week.
Here's four takeaways from Michigan's impressive victory on Saturday night.
Michigan will be able to run the football
Who knows, maybe Minnesota will go on to have an awful run defense, but one of the biggest problems the Michigan offense had last year was its inability to run consistently. The Wolverines averaged only 3.96 yards per carry, ranking eighth in the Big Ten and 89th nationally. Saturday night presented a marked improvement in that department.
Michigan rushed for 256 yards, averaging an impressive 8.3 per carry. Making it more impressive is that it was a dedicated group effort. Hassan Haskins led the way with 82 yards rushing and two touchdowns, but he was one of three Wolverines to rush for at least 50 yards and one of four players to find the end zone. Charbonnet finished with 70 yards and a touchdown on four carries, while Joe Milton contributed with 52 yards rushing and a score himself. The cherry on top was veteran Chris Evans finding the end zone in the fourth quarter for his first touchdown since the 2018 season.
The receiving corps shared the load as well with nine different players catching a pass and nobody catching more than the four passes Ronnie Bell did.
Milton may become best QB of Harbaugh Era
It was his first start, and you could tell that the Michigan gam eplan was somewhat conservative, not wanting to overload a young quarterback in such a situation. Still, Milton performed well and showed signs of what might be to come. He completed 15-of-22 passes for 225 yards with a touchdown while rushing for 52 yards and another score. Perhaps more important than anything, Milton didn't turn the ball over.
Still, while the stats won't wow you, there were little moments that caused an eyebrow to raise. Like when Milton was rolling out to his left and flung a ball 50 yards downfield with a flick of the wrist. Or his patience in the pocket to wait for his target to come open rather than forcing it.
Of course, there were signs of the things Milton has to work on as well. There was one play where his target had split Minnesota's safeties deep over the middle, and Milton airmailed him by a good 15 yards. The arm strength has never been in question, but the touch has been. It was evident on that throw.
Michigan might be Ohio State's main competition
At least in the Big Ten East. It's the first weekend of the Big Ten season, so I don't want to get carried away with long-term takeaways, but Michigan was the only other team in the division to look impressive today. Penn State lost to Indiana, and while that's huge for Indiana, it feels more like the Hoosiers got away with one than anything. Then there were embarrassing losses by both Michigan State and Maryland. Of course, I suppose you can say Rutgers looks like a threat after the way it beat Michigan State, but that feels like an amazing stretch.
Michigan, on the other hand, looked just as impressive as Ohio State. This isn't to say that Michigan is better than Ohio State -- spoiler alert: nobody in the Big Ten is better than Ohio State -- but early returns indicate that their rivalry game might be the most important one on the Big Ten schedule this season.
Morgan disappointed in a big-time spot
I'm a believer in Morgan and have been outspoken about it for the last few years. I even included him as a potential first-round pick in my early 2021 NFL Mock Draft back in the spring. I think he's that good. But he wasn't that good Saturday night. Some of it can be attributed to Morgan being behind an offensive line missing its starting right tackle and guard against a stout Michigan front. Morgan was sacked five times on the night, but his accuracy was off even when he wasn't under pressure.
Morgan completed only 18-of-31 passes for 197 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Even on his two big plays, his throws were lacking. On a 45-yard connection to Chris Altman-Bell in the first half, Morgan severely underthrew the pass, and Altman-Bell made a spectacular adjustment to save the play. Then there was a 38-yard connection with Rashod Bateman off play-action that could have been a touchdown had Morgan led Bateman down the field. Instead, it was another underthrow, and Bateman fought through a pass interference to make the catch anyway.
Now, none of this has me selling my Morgan stock. It was the first game of the season on a cold, breezy night behind a young, inexperienced offensive line. However, Morgan will have to play better going forward if the Gophers are going to challenge for the West again this season.