The feeling that Michigan Wolverines fans woke up with on Sunday morning has to be one of the most pleasant they have felt after a win, especially in a night game, since Jim Harbaugh arrived in 2015. After a 49-24 drubbing of the No. 21 Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Battle for the Little Brown Jug, optimism across the fanbase is understandably high given what we saw on the field.
The victory was a total team effort for the Wolverines and the position unit grades that follow in the aftermath absolutely reflect that. However, there were a few concerns here and there.
Joe Milton’s numbers might not jump off the page from Saturday night, but he was outstanding after some first drive jitters. He finished the night 15-of-22 passing for 225 yards and one passing touchdown to go along with eight rushes for 52 yards and a score on the ground. He was confident, poised and undeterred when things did not go his way. Some of his best plays of the night were the ones that wound up not being made, like the dropped touchdown pass over the middle of the field to Erick All and one of the most impressive incomplete passes you’ll ever see.
Joe Milton has a GUN. This was incomplete but wow. pic.twitter.com/WCf0pLcHYQ— Thor Nystrom (@thorku) October 25, 2020
Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ game plan was tremendous and Milton’s execution was at the center of it. It looks like they might have the perfect fit to do what they want to on that side of the ball and the hype is real.
Running Backs: A
Michigan talked up its deep backfield all offseason long and it was fully on display against Minnesota. Hassan Haskins (6 rushes, 82 yard, 2 TD) and Zach Charbonnet (4 carries, 70 yards, TD) led the way for the Wolverines in an effort that saw them run for 256 yards and five touchdowns on 31 carries. For those of you who did not do the math, that works out to 8.3 yards per rush. True freshman Blake Corum got in there and had five runs for 24 yards on the night (along with a 24-yard reception) and Chris Evans’ completed his comeback to the field with 19 yards rushing and his first score in two years.
Ben Mason belongs at fullback and it’s good they are keeping him there. He might very well get you a stupid penalty here and there, but if you give him enough opportunities, he’ll make up for it, too. Case in point, the eight-yard touchdown reception from Milton. Also, he had a huge block to spring Charbonnet’s touchdown run.
Who else predicted Joe Milton's 1st TD pass of the year would be to Ben Mason who'd leap and flip for an ridiculous acrobatic touchdown? ♂️— Due# (@JDue51) October 25, 2020
(first score for Mason since 2018.) pic.twitter.com/78boHNDa6p
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: B+
Like the running backs, Gattis found a way to get several of his pass catchers involved, as well. Nine different receivers caught the 15 completions from Milton on Saturday night with Ronnie Bell leading the way at four catches for 74 yards. No other receiver caught more than two passes, but a third of the total receptions were from true freshmen (Corum had two, Roman Wilson had two, AJ Henning had one). It was a good night for a group that was missing senior tight end Nick Eubanks. Erick All stepped up admirably, but dropped an easy touchdown pass for Milton. There might not be a bonafide No. 1 option here, but there are a heck of a lot of No. 2’s, it appears.
Offensive Line: A+
The starting five (from left to right) of Ryan Hayes, Chuck Filiaga, Andrew Vastardis, Andrew Stueber and Jalen Mayfield was as advertised. The unit as a whole did yeoman’s work keeping Milton clean and upright all night long and then turning around and plowing the Gophers in the run game. The right side of Stueber-Mayfield in particular was great, especially in the QB run game with Milton. Vastardis lived up to his “Mack truck” monicker and perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay to Hayes as your left tackle is that you did not notice him much out there. Great effort from this group and hats off to offensive line coach Ed Warinner for having them ready to go.
Defensive Line: B
Let’s start with the positives here. The EDGE guys look fantastic and the depth is improved. Aidan Hutchinson was held all night, but still disruptive. Kwity Paye finished the game with a pair of sacks. Carlo Kemp and Donovan Jeter had some nice moments here. I was very impressed by the play of both Taylor Upshaw and Julius Welschof. The pass rush — especially late in the game when it was closing time — was terrific. But on a night when Minnesota was missing the entirety of the right side of its offensive line, they had a rough go of it stuffing the run. Mohamed Ibrahim ripped off 140 yards on 26 attempts and a pair of scores for Minnesota. It was a much better showing that Michigan’s first road game of last season at Wisconsin, but one would figure similar coaching work will be put in to get that corrected.
The points above about the run defense can apply here, as well. There were times where the linebacker units were out of position and the discipline just was not quite there. Ibrahim deserves credit for the way he played, too. The positives here were that the duo of Cam McGrone and Josh Ross is confirmed to be one of the most athletic in the country. If I had a game ball to give out, it would go to VIPER Michael Barrett, who forced a fumble that led to the Jeter touchdown and then returned a pooch kick 65 yards. The argument can be made he was Michigan’s best player on the field on Saturday night.
Defensive Backs: B+
The elephant in the room is the Daxton Hill injury. He left the game in the first half and we don’t know what happened or when he will return. Hill was replaced by a true freshman in Makari Paige, who had up-and-down moments after being thrown into the fire. That certainly plays a part in some of the team’s problems defensively in the second half. As a whole, I thought this was a pretty good showing for the defensive backfield. They limited one of the most efficient and explosive pass offenses in the country to 197 yards through the air, over half of which went to Rashod Bateman (9 catches, 101 yards). Bateman was the focus coming into the game and outside of a 38-yard reception, it was a pretty low-impact night for the star wideout.
Vincent Gray was solid in his debut, but Gemon Green was the best corner on the field and it was not particularly close to the naked eye. He dropped a few would-be interceptions, but that’s why defensive backs don’t play receiver, right? We can chalk that up to first-game jitters for now.
Special Teams: D+
Among the absences for Minnesota in this game was almost its entire specialty unit, including its kicker and punter. So struggles for them there were not surprising. With all of that being said, Michigan for some reason decided to match them there. They had one of their punts blocked early on in the game and Jake Moody missed three field goals. Quinn Nordin was unavailable on Saturday, as he was “working through something.” The heads-up return by Barrett saved an otherwise forgettable night.
Could this be the start of Jim Harbaugh’s second wind at Michigan? The man changed out of his khakis into blue pants, for goodness sake!
In year two of what was a bit of a reset button in installing a new offense last season, this team looked more prepared, physical and poised as it as since...maybe the 2016 season? All offseason he and his team have spoken about the togetherness of the group and some of the pleasant surprises. Nearly all of those manifested themselves on the field on Saturday night. The offensive game plan was on-point and while there were problems defensively, they succeed in making Tanner Morgan uncomfortable and Bateman largely being a non-factor.
One of the trademarks of Harbaugh-coached teams post-2016 was some bad body language and lack of fire when things got tough. And boy, did they ever get tough early in this football game. But we never saw hung heads or deer-in-the-headlights looks. Every time that Minnesota throw a jab, Michigan did not only counter. They threw sucker punches of their own. The team deserves credit for that, but so does the coaching staff. This was one of the most complete efforts against a quality opponent of the Harbaugh era.