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'So much good': Michigan checks all the boxes in initial test, rolling over Minnesota

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Minneapolis — The checklist of unknowns regarding the Michigan offense heading into the season opener looked something like this:

How would quarterback Joe Milton handle making his first career start, which just happened to be in prime time and on the road?

How would the refurbished offensive line handle business with four new starters?

How effective will the receivers be with Nico Collins no longer part of the position group?

Michigan running back Zach Charbonnet (24) carries for a touchdown against Minnesota in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis.

And just how good is the loaded running back room?

The answers across the board could be summed up in one word: Solid.

Behind running backs Hassan Haskins’ two touchdowns, and Milton looking poised and making good decisions, No. 18 Michigan defeated Minnesota, 49-24, before a smattering of family members at TCF Bank Stadium in chilly temperatures Saturday night. This was the first game of the abbreviated Big Ten season, delayed and shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

BOX SCORE: Michigan 49, Minnesota 24

Michigan, which has not lost at Minnesota since 1977, retains the Little Brown Jug.

Milton was 15-of-22 for 225 yards and a touchdown, an 8-yard pass to Ben Mason, in his first career start. He also ran for a score. Nine players caught passes, and the offense gained 481 yards.

“I did well,” Milton said. “Really didn’t have too much hiccups. I was comfortable in the pocket. O-line did great.”

Haskins led the running backs with 82 yards, on six carries and scored twice. Haskins also made a critical stop on a faked punt. Michigan also had a defensive score by Donovan Jeter on a fumble recovery to round out the scoring. Jake Moody, however, missed three field goals.

“Joe was great,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “First time starting, on the road against a really good team, Top-25-ranked team, big Saturday night stage, the whole shebang, so he was cool as a cucumber. He handled everything with aplomb. His accuracy in the passing game, real command of the offense, and he ran with the football with authority and had great ball security, just really played an outstanding game.”

More: Wojo: Milton shows he’s more than ready as Wolverines pummel Gophers

Linebacker Josh Ross, who missed most of last season with an injury, led the team with nine tackles and had a late-game interception. Defensive end Kwity Paye had three of Michigan’s eight tackles for loss, including two sacks. End Aidan Hutchinson had six tackles and a pass breakup, and viper Michael Barrett had seven tackles and a forced fumble that led to the Jeter score.

“Kwity Paye, first of all, was just outstanding, especially in the second half and fourth quarter,” Harbaugh said. “They couldn’t run left very effectively. Kwity was up the field making plays and Aidan Hutchinson was doing the same thing. They really are the identity of our defense in so many ways. I thought the coverage was really good as well. Josh Ross made big plays. I was so happy for Donovan Jeter, Mike Barrett was spectacular causing that fumble and Jeter picked it out of the air and went in the end zone. A thrilling moment for so many guys who have worked so hard.

“So much good to talk about.”

Minnesota opened the second half trailing 35-17 but patiently drove 71 yards in 11 plays and scored on Mohamed Ibrahim’s 5-yard run. It was his second touchdown of the game and finished with 140 yards on 26 carries. But Michigan scored touchdowns on its next two possessions and the defense came up big in the series between, forcing Minnesota to turn over the ball on downs after reaching the Wolverines’ 4-yard line. That put Michigan ahead, 49-24, early in the fourth quarter.

Michigan running backs coach Jay Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, in his second season calling plays, spoke several times in the month leading up to the season about the need for explosive plays in the run game. They got those from Zach Charbonnet, who scored on a 70-yard run in the first quarter to tie the score, 7-7, and Haskins had a 66-yard run after Minnesota turned the ball over on downs and set up the eventual 5-yard score by Chris Evans for the final points of the game.

The offensive line, which had to replace four starters, gave the backs room to run and was tough in pass protection. Minnesota was credited with one sack and had three tackles for loss. 

“Backs were great,” Harbaugh said. “Gotta talk about Hassan Haskins. He finds creases, he finds lanes. He has the ability to finish runs. Our backs played extremely well.”

The big plays were not exclusive to the running backs. Michigan gave up one early in the game, a block of Will Hart’s punt that gave the Gophers the ball on the 17-yard line and they took the early lead, 7-0. But Haskins made the 4-yard stuff on the faked punt, and Barrett made the hit to force the turnover that Jeter took in for the score.

“I thought all three units contributed mightily in the game,” Harbaugh said.

As for Milton, who has been waiting for the chance to start, he looked at ease and settled in early. He was able to spread the ball around.

“It feels great for me because I don’t have to do too much,” Milton said. “I’ve got a lot of playmakers and got those guys the ball because that’s what they’re here for, because they’re going to make the play.”

angelique.chengelis@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @chengelis