MINNEAPOLIS — There were 10 months of alternating hope and despair, and at the end of it, there was a swarm of white jerseys in a barren stadium in Minneapolis, congregating on the 20-yard line to celebrate a season-opening victory.
That was the scene Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, closed to all but 589 family and friends due to the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the start of Big Ten play by eight weeks, after No. 18 Michigan beat No. 21 Minnesota, 49-24.
It was a moment cemented by 58 minutes of the Wolverines answering every question they’ve faced for the past eight months.
“I’m really, just really proud of our team,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I believe in them and I respect them and I trust them. And I just wanted to go out there tonight and just let it rip and they did that.”
In the opening moments, though, Michigan didn’t have it so easy.
A promising opening drive was derailed by a pair of negative plays before a blocked punt set up an easy Gophers’ touchdown. As the Wolverines trotted off the field down 7-0, it was easy to wonder if they were mired in the same place they were 297 days ago, when they rang in the new year with a Citrus Bowl loss that made you wonder how anything would ever change.
The 10 months since have only added to that frustration. Michigan had to replace its two-year starting quarterback, Shea Patterson, and 12 other starters, all while navigating a pandemic that temporarily canceled the season back in August.
And then suddenly, over the course of a few first-quarter minutes Saturday night, everything changed. At the center of it all stood junior quarterback Joe Milton, guiding Michigan through one last hurdle.
“Joe, he’s always cool and collected,” junior running back Hassan Haskins said. “He don’t get worried like that. You know he’s gonna do his thing. So that’s why we got all our trust in him. We know he’s gonna do his job.”
Beleaguered for his lack of experience, Milton was a commanding presence all night, finishing with 277 total yards and no turnovers in his first career start. Famed for his arm strength, he helped Michigan pull away in the first quarter with a third-down touch pass into the heart of Minnesota’s defense followed by a smart, simple toss to senior fullback Ben Mason for an eight-yard touchdown.
“(Milton) handled everything with aplomb,” Harbaugh said. “His accuracy in the passing game, real command of the offense.”
But on a day that was regarded as Milton’s reckoning, he often took a backseat to the Wolverines’ run game, spearheaded by an offensive line featuring four new starters. It’s a unit that’s faced an offseason of constant skepticism, but throughout it all, Michigan remained confident.
Ten plays into the game, skepticism evaporated in the form of a perfectly executed power run that sophomore running back Zach Charbonnet took 70 yards untouched into the end zone, tying the score at seven.
Three drives later, the defense got on the board. Junior VIPER Michael Barrett came off the edge to fold Gophers’ quarterback Tanner Morgan in half on the precipice of his own goal line, leaving the ball spilling away from his splayed body into defensive tackle Donovan Jeter’s open arms for a Michigan lead.
“(Defensive coordinator Don Brown) put a gameplan to give some looks that we haven’t gave before,” Barrett said. “It definitely made an impact on them. You can tell that they started checking, being extra cautious. So yeah, it definitely had an impact on the game.”
The Wolverines never looked back, scoring five touchdowns in their next six drives, four of them on the ground.
But with the sense of occasion marred by an eerie silence that could only meet game-changing plays with a murmer, Michigan’s jubilation never fully boiled over. There were high fives and hugs, but never scrums spilling onto the field in celebration of Harbaugh’s most decisive away win over a ranked opponent.
And at the end of it, the only sign of a dejected home crowd was Minnesota’s parents walking toward the exits in groups of two and three, a small trickle where a river would normally flow. On the other side of the stadium, Michigan’s parents gravitated down towards their sons, who headed into the locker room.
There, the Little Brown Jug awaited, providing confirmation that their first game in 297 days had finished with their first win in 336.