MINNEAPOLIS — There was a notion coming into Saturday that this season was supposed to serve as an in-between period of sorts for the Michigan football team.

The past two years have been defined by Shea Patterson’s presence, even as he devolved into a divisive figure. Next year, there’s the much-anticipated arrival of five-star quarterback J.J. McCarthy, along with the maturation of star-studded 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes.

Both eras carried boundless hope and optimism. This year was supposed to have neither.

And then, on Saturday night, Michigan found its identity.

“I just wanted to go out there tonight and just let it rip and they did that,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the Wolverines dispatched an overmatched Minnesota, 49-24.

What exactly does letting it rip entail? Not what you might think.

If you’re conjuring up images of junior quarterback Joe Milton chucking the football 70 yards downfield, you won’t get what you’re looking for in Saturday’s tape. What you will get is a masterclass in offensive efficiency, thanks to the game plan of offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. And in the end, you get 481 yards on 56 plays, good for an eye-popping 8.6 yards per play.

It started with a swing pass to running back Blake Corum that went for 24 yards through the heart of the Gophers’ defense.

Blake Corum? On the first play of the season? Isn’t he a freshman? Fair questions, but Gattis won’t have it. This is how he wants to operate: in a true meritocracy.

That became evident quickly with freshman wide receiver Roman Wilson and scantly-used senior fullback Ben Mason getting key first-quarter targets. For all the murmurs about who would start at running back, five players saw at least four carries and none saw more than eight. The situation was similar in the passing game, where nine players caught a pass with none securing more than four.

“I’ve got a lot of playmakers and get those guys the ball, because that’s what they’re here for,” Milton said. “They’re going to make a play.”

The reason they’re able to make a play lies in the expertise of their offensive coordinator. He consistently maximized his weapons’ skill sets, designing bubble screens for Bell, slants for Wilson and end-arounds for speedy sophomore wide receiver Giles Jackson.

It was the type of offensive performance Michigan has spent the past half-decade watching from afar or, more problematically, from the opposing sideline. It was also the type of performance that was promised when Harbaugh hired Gattis in Jan. 2019.

In Gattis’ first season, though, the Wolverines’ identity remained the same. There were hints of his intentions here and there, in the form of a new read-based offense, but Gattis was often handicapped by his personnel. Even at his best, Patterson was a remnant of a previous regime and often struggled to make the reads Gattis asked of him.

His offense, therefore, was often uncreative, and Michigan’s identity remained its increasingly erratic defense.

This year, Gattis has his guys — or at least those like Milton, whom his staff has molded for the better part of two years.

“We’re gonna run our offense and build it around who we have at the quarterback position as well as who we have at skill positions,” Gattis said on Sept. 23. “We’ve got a number of different skill players that are going to be exciting with the ball in hand. We’re gonna be well-rounded.”

And as a result, Michigan is finally a realization of Gattis’ vision. For the first time in the Harbaugh era, its identity lies in an explosive offense.

That was the promise back in Jan. 2019, in the wake of back-to-back games in which the Wolverines allowed a combined 103 points despite boasting the second-best total defense in the country. Those games were a wake-up call for Harbaugh, a sign that defense alone can’t be an elite program’s identity in the era of spread offenses.

On Saturday, that identity revolution was finally complete. At least, it looked like it for the first time.

It’s a transition that’s enabled games like Saturday’s, when the Wolverines can dominate despite defensive inconsistency.

Bigger tests, of course, lie ahead. Wisconsin and Penn State are on deck in the next month. Neither will see a pro-spread offense and roll over, like Minnesota did. I won’t even mention the opponent on Dec. 12, because why be a killjoy?

But regardless of what comes next, Michigan will be better prepared than ever to adjust when things go south. And for that, it has Gattis and its new identity to thank.

Mackie can be reached at tmackie@umich.edu or on Twitter @theo_mackie.

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