at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 24. Minnesota lost against Michigan 49-24. (Nur B. Adam / Minnesota Daily)

For years, Joe Milton has operated behind the scenes, preparing for his moment in the spotlight. So for two years, he only entered the public eye through scattered press conference refrains, insisting he had begun to match his prodigious physical talent with an improved grasp of the mental side of football. 

Saturday night in Minnesota, he finally got the opportunity to show how far he’s come, leading Michigan to a 49-24 win over the Golden Gophers. Milton finished the game with 277 total yards and two touchdowns, all while avoiding turnovers.

On Milton’s second drive of the game, he flashed one of his developments most discussed by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh — the ability to put touch on his throws when needed.

Minnesota’s defense on this play is a textbook example of what not to do on third-and-medium. The Gophers drop two safeties deep to protect against the deep ball, vacating the middle of the field while only rushing three, giving Milton plenty of time in the pocket.

To this point in the game, offensive coordinator Josh Gattis had schemed up a slew of single-read quick passes to get Milton into a rhythm. On this play, Milton does excellently to identify Minnesota’s flawed defense for himself and take advantage, finding freshman receiver Roman Wilson on a post route out of the slot. Wilson has a 15-yard gap between the Gophers linebackers and safeties, but Milton does well to drop a weighted touch pass over the linebackers into the empty space, rather than firing one of his trademark bullet passes.

“My touch tonight was pretty outstanding,” Milton said after the game. “I was pretty impressed with myself. I’ve been working on that a long time.”

Milton, though, still showed the arm strength that makes him such a coveted talent.

Michigan lines up in 12 personnel on this play, dropping both tight ends and freshman running back Zach Charbonnet into pass protection against Minnesota’s six-man rush. That leaves the Wolverines with just two pass catchers against the Gophers’ five defensive backs, forcing Milton to make a special throw. 

And he does just that, finding sophomore receiver Mike Sainristil for a first down. Sainristil runs a 15-yard out route just beyond the first-down marker on the play. It’s a common route in the NFL, but rare in college because few quarterbacks can make the throw. Milton can, zipping a dart into a tight window and kickstarting a touchdown drive.

Far more important than Milton showcasing his arm talent, though, was his ability to consistently make the correct reads. Only three of his 15 completions on Saturday traveled more than 10 yards. And yet, he managed 225 passing yards, mostly on plays like this pass to sophomore tight end Erick All.

Michigan once again sets up for this play in 12 personnel, with both tight ends lined up to the right side of the formation. It’s a near identical play to the Wolverines’ third touchdown of the game, with the offensive line selling a run to the right and the H-back slipping out to the left.

In this case, that was All, who dropped a surefire touchdown on the previous play. He runs a flat route, combining with the X receiver and slot receiver for a variation of the sail concept. The X receiver, sophomore Cornelius Johnson, runs a go route and junior receiver Ronnie Bell, who lines up in the slot, runs an out route. Bell is Milton’s first read and actually has a step on his defender. Milton, though, recognizes that Minnesota is playing man-to-man coverage and that the Gophers’ linebackers all bit on the run fake. That leaves the weak-side safety deep in coverage and no defenders in the flat, meaning he can pick up just as many yards on a five-yard toss to All as he can on a much more dangerous throw to Bell.

“That’s a tough thing for a quarterback to do, rolling to his left, put two nice perfect balls, one on Erick, one on Ben Mason for the touchdown,” Harbaugh said, adding that it was a play Milton wouldn’t have been able to make a year or two ago.

Milton’s reads, though, weren’t always perfect.

Michigan runs a four verticals concept on this play late in the first half. Milton’s first read is All, who’s lined up in the slot to the left. One of Minnesota’s safeties lines up over All, putting himself in position to make the hit. Milton forces the ball to All anyway and is lucky to avoid an interception. From the TV camera angle, it’s impossible to see whether Milton had any options open downfield, but with two timeouts, he could have at least found his checkdown option, who was open on the right hash marks for a moderate gain.

After the game, Harbaugh said he could recall one missed read from Milton. He was likely referring to this play. “I thought he went through his reads extremely well,” Harbaugh added. 

The pass to All was one of Milton’s few mistakes on the day. This sack on the first drive of the game was another.

On this third-and-23, Milton recognizes the need to make a big play and doesn’t check down to Jackson — who runs a curl route 10 yards from the line of scrimmage — when he feels pressure. However, Milton makes the wrong play to avoid the pressure. Minnesota is only rushing three defenders, leaving a massive hole in the B gap for Milton to step into. Instead, Milton evades a clean pocket, allowing the Gophers’ defensive end to bring him down for their only sack of the game. This would have been the correct play against a four- or five-man rush (which Milton did successfully later in the game), but Milton needs to recognize the light rush and step up into the pocket, where Michigan has three linemen assigned to one interior rusher.

“There was good protection on the play,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Joe peeled out of the pocket and ended up getting sacked.”

After the game, Milton acknowledged his jitters on the first drive. And once he settled down, his pocket presence was excellent.

On this play — one snap after his throw to All in double coverage — Milton feels blindside pressure, just like he did on the sack above. This time, though, Milton recognizes both tackles getting beaten upfield and steps up into the B gap, enabling him to use his arm strength and nearly find Jackson for a big play.

But while Milton did a good job of feeling the pressure and stepping into the pocket, he would have had a much easier play if he could have gone through his reads a split second quicker. Before the play broke down, Jackson was open on a post route over the middle of the field. All, lined up in-line to Milton’s left, was his first read on the play. Milton correctly recognized the safety sitting back on All’s hitch-and-go route and worked to Jackson on the other side of the field. With perfect protection, he would’ve been able to find Jackson for a touchdown, but even with pressure coming from both ends, Milton would have been able to make the pass had he gone through his reads quicker.

Still, he made an impressive play for any quarterback, much less one in his first-ever start and nearly threw a highlight-reel touchdown pass.

And despite a scattering of rookie mistakes, Saturday was a hugely encouraging night for Milton, as he commanded the Wolverines’ offense with aplomb — to use Harbaugh’s word of choice — and showcased the areas in which he’s improved over the past two years.

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