Joe Milton dropped back a full 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, rolled slightly to his right and let it fly. The game was deep into the recesses of garbage time by that point, with Ohio State putting any intrigue about the outcome to rest long before.
So Milton had a go, flinging the ball 50 yards downfield.
That play, to the extent it even registers as a memory, is recalled for a glimpse into the arm strength of the then-redshirt freshman quarterback last season. Perhaps a barebones hint of a bright future.
On the other end of that dart was a 6-foot-4 receiver, leaping over an awaiting safety, with another defensive back draped by his side. Nico Collins got up, tossed the ball back to the referee and quickly shook his head.
What was understood, and need not be said: Where was that in the 55-plus minutes prior?
Fast forward a year, and it seems Michigan would be remiss not to learn that lesson, as it faces the tall task of knocking off the second-ranked Buckeyes. Collins, coming off the best game of his career last week at Indiana, will almost surely be an outsized part of the gameplan — presumably, before it’s too late.
“Last year, it didn’t end well, like we wanted it to,” Collins said Monday. “And ever since that loss, we don’t want to have that feeling again. So throughout the offseason, our main focus was to not have that feeling again. We take it very personal throughout this whole building. And it’s that week.”
Even in a game that will feature future NFL talent up and down the field, Collins’ skillset will stick out. Ohio State will likely line up cornerback Jeff Okudah on Collins for the majority of the game. Okudah, for all his merits, will be at a three-to-four inch size disadvantage.
Collins, coming off a monstrous six-catch, 165-yard, three-touchdown outing against Indiana will be out for more in the most important game of his career to date.
“A dude of (Collins’) size probably puts fear in a lot of cornerback’s hearts,” said senior tight end Nick Eubanks. “And one thing about Saturday is, I think he’ll do way better than what he did last week.
“To me, I think it’s catching everything and blocking everything. Most people don’t see it, but he’s a big, mean dude. In terms of getting what he wants and getting what he needs. I think he’ll come through for us Saturday.”
Collins’ ascension comes as the Wolverines’ offense has discovered an identity befitting of the “speed in space” mantra that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis espouses. In the past six weeks, Michigan has averaged over 38 points per game — spearheaded by a potent passing attack.
His breakout game last weekend comes after a performance against Michigan State that saw Collins reach the end zone on a 22-yard post route, when he elevated over a smaller defensive back, making a contested catch appear routine.
“He’s catching the contested balls as well as you can,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Drawn a lot of pass interference penalties. There’s times where they’ve got to grab him because he’s behind them, so he’s getting behind them, getting separation on defensive backs and in the secondary.”
To Harbaugh’s point, Collins’ nine pass interference penalties drawn are good for tops in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus. Most of those calls have come on deep passes, as a desperate corner cuts his losses with the ball in the air. All year, he’s been a viable outlet when the offense has needed a big play down the field.
Ahead of a game that might just be Collins’ last in a Michigan uniform, it would stand to reason he’ll be a focal point of an aggressive offensive gameplan. Perhaps he’ll even get those chances before the game’s dying embers render any big plays meaningless.