BLOOMINGTON — Cornelius Johnson kept his answers brief when he spoke to reporters. But when asked about the identity Michigan’s offense wants, he was clear.
“To be explosive and control the game and make plays on the perimeter, make plays when balls come to you and ultimately to win ball games, helping contribute to the team,” the sophomore receiver said. “That’s our goal as a group and that’s what we envision.”
In fleeting moments Saturday, Michigan embodied that ideal. Johnson’s first-quarter touchdown came on a 37-yard post route that showed everyone exactly what junior quarterback Joe Milton could do. Later in the game, Milton led a touchdown drive that featured two big plays by Ronnie Bell — the second of which included Milton throwing as he veered left for a 52-yard gain. In that sense, the preseason prognostications surrounding the talent of Michigan’s quarterback have come to pass.
No one has any doubt that Milton is capable of making plays.
But through three games, Milton has run into the problem of consistency. For all the plays where he makes the ball sing with a flick of his wrist, there seem to be more where he overthrows his receiver by 10 yards or throws into double coverage. He finished Michigan’s 38-21 loss to Indiana a modest 18-of-34 with 344 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions — which came on the Wolverines’ final two drives, when Milton tried to lead a comeback.
“It’s not always on my shoulders,” Milton said of the fourth quarter.
On those drives, though, as Milton took ambitious shots that resulted in two ugly interceptions and the end of Michigan’s chances, it seemed as though he was acting like it was.
“My whole process is not to be the hero, just take what they give me,” Milton said. “If they back up, just come out to my checkdown. They come close, take a shot.”
In Michigan’s season-opener, a dominant 49-24 win over Minnesota, Milton’s performance was notable for what he wasn’t asked to do: Win the game for the Wolverines. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis set up the offense with bubble screens and short passes; designed quarterback runs and deadly RPOs. The kinds of plays that can make things easy for a talented, but inexperienced, quarterback. Rarely was Milton asked to make downfield throws.
Since then, Michigan has largely eschewed the bubble screens. Milton has been asked to do more — though part of that is dictated by the fact that the Wolverines have found themselves in losing positions that require them to throw the ball downfield more often.
“Every snap he takes, quarterback playing his third game, he’s getting a lot put on him,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Playing from behind and having to play those kind of situations. It’s an offense, it’s a unit that each has got to support the other.”
Harbaugh’s right. It does Milton no favors that the Wolverines ran for 13 yards, the offensive line was banged up or that Michigan’s defense has gotten beaten easily. No one would point the finger towards Milton for the Wolverines’ losses.
Still, his limitations have come into focus. Mainly, the downfield accuracy that reporters have been asking about for years. Milton is currently averaging 8.1 yards per attempt. The much-maligned Shea Patterson averaged 8.0 in 2019. That doesn’t tell the whole story, but much like Patterson, Milton has thus far been a perfectly fine quarterback who hasn’t been able to change games for Michigan.
Unlike Patterson, Milton is three starts into his career — and should only get better. Especially if the Wolverines can put him in better positions.
“The run game, we’ve got to make some improvements. No question about it,” Harbaugh said. “The offensive line was very much reshuffled as you saw in the game. I thought guys did extremely well. (Andrew) Stueber went from right guard to right tackle. Zak Zinter, true freshman, started at right guard. I thought redshirt freshman Karsen Barnhart did some really good things as well (at tackle).
“All the things — a slow start, playing from behind, having some passes dropped, forcing some things toward the end. All of those things contributed (to Milton’s performance).”
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