Michigan Wolverines football is set to take on the Michigan State Spartans today at noon ET on FOX.
Here’s a look around the country at what they’re saying heading into the rivalry matchup.
Milton’s comfort as a passer unlocks plenty. But his ability to be a full participant in the run game, along with Michigan’s positional diversity (there are no personnel giveaways with this group), might really make this offense soar. Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy appeared to be moving this direction in 2018, when the Wolverines were breaking Shea Patterson into the program and Harbaugh was calling the offense with Pep Hamilton. They were tinkering with spread concepts and toying with the idea of getting the quarterback more involved with the run game. But if you’re going to be a spread team, you have to buy-in full-stop. When Harbaugh hired Gattis, that’s what he did. He went from tip-toeing toward the edge of the diving board to jumping all the way into the pool.
And now you’re starting to see why.
Milton’s presence both in the read game and in designed quarterback runs gives Michigan something it hasn’t had in a long time. Michigan’s offensive line can control a game if you let it, but you have to have more in the bag than straight handoffs into crowded boxes. If you can keep the field spread and force defenses to be ready for a handoff, a pass or a quarterback keep on every play … then you’re going to have a good day. That’s what Gattis’ offense is designed to do. And Milton’s the type of player who can unlock all of it.
Well into a Saturday night in Minneapolis, with the temperature below 30 and the extremities asking for some blood flow even in an indoor press box, a charismatic quarterback did pop up in a Zoom interview square after doing what he had done on the field. He did begin speaking. A voice inside a listener’s head did say, Damn.
After a 49-24 win over Minnesota, Joe Milton started talking about how he teared up before his first start, a reminder that 6-foot-5, 243-pound quarterbacks never used to do that in the olden days but only because that was a weaker culture full of men too fretful about perception to acknowledge such normalities.
“To me, in the beginning, I was fine,” he said. “Like, pregame, I was fine. I was listening to my music, so I was fine. And then when I got in the locker room, I took my headphones off. You know, I started tearing up because it’s real and it’s time to prove to the world who I am and what I can do. In the beginning, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, all right, it’s game time.’ And then when I got in the locker room, it was like, ‘Oh, it’s real.’ ”
There was Big Ten football in Wisconsin, but the streets weren’t jumping as usual
It came as a real and detailed and enamoring quotation from the new quarterback of one of the more cloistered of the country’s array of football programs, one not keen style-wise on sharing its players’ rich array of human stories. It erred only in the use of the word “world,” seeing as nobody cares outside one wacko country. But it came from a third-year student who had just steered around smoothly a team that scored 42 points on offense even while missing three field goals. Milton went 15 for 22 for 225 yards and one touchdown with zero interceptions, rushed eight times for 52 yards and another score and handled the offense with a word Harbaugh dragged out for beautiful use: “aplomb.”
Stewart: It’s no secret that for all of Jim Harbaugh’s past success in college, he rarely won big without a true mobile QB (Andrew Luck included). It’s only one game, but it seems like even the threat of a QB that can hurt you with his legs will help open up Michigan’s offense. If so, are they a darkhorse Playoff contender with that schedule and even a narrow loss to Ohio State? — Ty, Detroit
Did you know there’s an alternate universe where Harbaugh might have coached Taysom Hill at Stanford? Harbaugh signed him out of high school in 2009, but by the time Hill got back from his mission, Harbaugh was with the 49ers, and Hill decided to play at BYU. So, that would have been a QB who could run.
I liked what I saw from Joe Milton in his debut, and yes, he brings a different dimension to Michigan’s offense than Jake Rudock, Wilton Speight, John O’Korn or Shea Patterson. Milton gained more yards on one run against Minnesota (23) than Patterson gained in all but three games last season. A mobile QB makes any offense more dangerous, but particularly offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ scheme. His play-calls Saturday night included both designed QB runs and zone-read plays where Milton can hand off or keep it. He sold them well. And he’s so big that, even if the defender stays with him, he can stiff-arm or power his way to more yards.
As for the P word — yeah, I’m not going there yet. First of all, it’s one game. We have no idea how much of Michigan’s success was due to its jazzed-up offense or a Minnesota defense that lost a bunch of key guys. We need to see Milton in a situation where he has to make more throws under pressure. But also: How many times have we been through these teases with Harbaugh’s teams? Ever since the infamous 62-39 debacle (the 2018 Ohio State game), after they’d won 10 consecutive games, I’ll never be able to fully buy in on the Wolverines until they actually beat their hated rivals.
It shouldn’t be this bad for the Spartans. I mean, it’s not like D’antoni left the cupboards bare. Not at all. He actually took the cupboards with him, along with the bathroom fixtures and track lighting, and sold them on eBay. All he left behind were a couple assistants and his dusty, trusty playbook, the one with jet sweeps to the left, jet sweeps to the right and fourth-down runs straight ahead. Unfortunately, Tucker found it.
It’ll take a lot more than that to shock the Wolverines Saturday in the Big Empty House. Michigan has a different look this season, and I’m not just talking about Jim Harbaugh’s blue pants. The khakis mercifully were retired with an 0-5 record against Ohio State. In addition to new pants, Harbaugh unveiled a new quarterback, Joe “Whoa!” Milton, who has been described by hyperbole artists as a cross between Cam Newton, Brett Favre, Daunte Culpepper, Sonny Jurgensen and Y.A. Tittle. It’s a completely unfair expectation, but insufferable blowhards always set unfair expectations for the Wolverines, even though this sure looks like the year they go undefeated and make the playoff!
It’s that type of fake entitlement that infuriated D’antoni and once pushed him to mutter, “Pride comes before the fall.” Now that Michigan has reestablished control of the state, winning three of the past four meetings, the Spartans are nervous to see what comes after the fall (besides winter). Tucker is trying to dig up the ol’ venom, and variously referred to Michigan this week as “the school up the road,” “the school down the road” and “the school that hasn’t won the Big Ten in 16 years hahaha.”
OK, I made the last one up, but it would’ve been cool, right? We could use some spice, and not the nasty pumpkin latte crap. Hate to say it, but the “Little Brother” angle is played out. After 13 years of using it as an insult and making actual little brothers across our state feel insecure and inferior, enough already.
Meyer, who once called Michigan’s quarterback a “Cam Newton lookalike” for his strong arm, large frame and ability to run, said Joe Milton “has options” in the new offense. Four different running backs got carries on Saturday, while Milton (15-22, 225 yards, TD) completed at least one pass to nine different players.
“He wasn’t a real aggressive runner, a good runner, but I just think he’s going to get better and better,” Meyer said. “He is a giant athlete, and his ball comes out (quickly) from the release point.”
Meyer said he recorded a segment for FOX’s “Big Noon Kickoff” show this Saturday focused on Milton’s release point and the various nuances of Michigan’s versatile offense.
“But the use of RPO in relief — the screens was outstanding,” Meyer said. “You have to have a quick release to operate that way, and think rather quickly too. And he did both.”
Michigan’s offensive line was also a point of emphasis for Meyer, who had Ed Warinner on his staff at Ohio State from 2012 to 2016. The group allowed just one sack and two pressures all game, while the Wolverines averaged 8.3 yards per carry and broke two runs of 65-plus yards.
“For replacing four of the five starters, they played really well,” Meyer said. “So, I was (impressed). I thought this was going to be one of those down-to-the-wire games, and they dominated A to Z in that one.”
“Michigan came close a few years ago when they had that overtime game [in 2016],” Fox analyst Joel Klatt said. “Ryan Day then steps foot in Columbus, Ohio, and that offense goes through the roof. If you’re Michigan, you have to score to beat Ohio State.
“They haven’t been able to even come close to the offensive efficiency. What I saw last week was the corner being turned offensively. [Redshirt sophomore quarterback] Joe Milton is an incredibly talented guy.
“He’s huge, first of all, and has a quick release and one of the strongest arms I’ve seen in college football in the last four or five years. It’s stronger than [former Wyoming quarterback] Josh Allen’s or even [former Oregon quarterback] Justin Herbert’s.
“He throws lasers and can run it pretty well.”
Milton shined in his first collegiate start, completing 15 of his 22 passes (68.1 percent) for 225 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. To compare, Shea Patterson connected on at least 68.1 percent of his throws in a game just twice in 13 tries last season.
The redshirt sophomore chipped in 52 rushing yards and a score on the ground as well against the Gophers, helping lead an offensive attack that posted 481 yards and 49 points.
“Here’s the other part: Michigan hasn’t gone pure spread like they tried to do last year with Shea Patterson and run those soft, zone schemes in the run game,” Klatt noted. “They went back to what Harbaugh does well in the run game — pull guards and pull tackles in run power-oriented schemes.
“It all has to stem from No. 42 — [senior fullback/tight end] Ben Mason. Mason was a fullback under the old offense and Josh Gattis came in last year to be a spread coordinator.
“Mason goes to defensive tackle last season and now this year, they’re like ‘Out of the shotgun, let’s be a more power-oriented run game.’ Mason is now back on offense and they’re lining him up all over the place.
“He had several key blocks on the big runs and they’re back to getting downhill. They now have the power-oriented run game and a quarterback who can throw it, and a defense I still think can be efficient and certainly rush the quarterback.”
With a complete team seemingly in place and showdowns against Penn State and Wisconsin looming that don’t appear to be as challenging as they once did, the analyst said he likes what this Wolverine squad could accomplish this year.
“This may be Jim Harbaugh’s best Michigan team,” Klatt exclaimed. “I’m not saying they’ll beat Ohio State, but I’m bullish on Michigan after watching them last week.”
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