It felt like pure chaos, which seemed fitting during a year of turmoil.
In a stunning sequence at the beginning of Michigan football’s 49-24 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, the Wolverines were hit with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, suffered a 7-yard sack on third down, watched their first punt get blocked deep in their own territory and then surrendered a 14-yard touchdown reception to a wide-open tight end because of a coverage bust.
“Providence will favor the prepared,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said back in July when it was uncertain we’d ever see this day.
Flash forward to Saturday, just after 7:45 p.m., and three minutes into its first game, Michigan looked out of sorts. It trailed by seven points on the road against a top-25 team.
The signs portended doom.
At the very least they indicated the sixth year of the Harbaugh regime was off to a terrible, no good, very bad start. The Twitter grist mill started to whirl into action, feeding off the negative energy.
But before it gained any momentum, Michigan stopped it. On the first play from scrimmage following Minnesota’s opening salvo, Zach Charbonnet sprinted across the field on a 70-yard touchdown run to tie the score after fullback Ben Mason and right tackle Jalen Mayfield freed him with a pair of crushing blocks.
Minutes later, Don Brown’s defense delivered its own haymaker when linebacker Michael Barrett came off the edge and rocked Minnesota All-Big Ten quarterback Tanner Morgan, causing the ball to pop loose into the waiting arms of defensive tackle Donovan Jeter, who sprinted to the end zone to push Michigan ahead, 14-7.
Just like that, the distressing prologue evolved into something far more pleasing for Wolverines fans. From that point forward, they saw a team that executed with precision and consistency while overwhelming Minnesota with its ample supply of firepower.
During a game that defied norms, inside an empty stadium, against a team missing its top two kickers and punter, the Wolverines did the routine stuff well and played sound football.
The offensive line opened cavernous holes. The running backs ripped off big gains. And the defense made the necessary stops.
But it was quarterback Joe Milton, in his debut as starter, that set the tone for this kind of performance with his even-keeled play. He completed 68% of his pass attempts, contributed two touchdowns and didn't commit a turnover while amassing 277 yards of total offense. Throughout the game, he threaded together productive possessions with a combination of well-placed throws and fruitful runs.
During a second-quarter scoring drive, his repertoire was on full display. He zipped a pass to Mike Sainristil for an 11-yard gain that began a Michigan surge. Later he connected with freshman A.J. Henning to push the Wolverines into field-goal range. Then Milton carried the Michigan offense even deeper, covering 29 yards on a pair of carries that ushered the Wolverines to the doorstep of Minnesota’s end zone. That set up a rushing touchdown that gave Michigan a 28-17 lead.
As Milton played with a steady hand, the defense made sure his counterpart wouldn’t outperform him. The Wolverines’ front bombarded Morgan’s pocket repeatedly, sacking him five times. Behind them, the secondary created a force field that sealed off the deeper halves.
In turn, Michigan transformed Minnesota’s star receiver Rashod Bateman into an accessory after he spent the entirety of last season as one of the Gophers’ most dynamic weapons.
The Morgan-Bateman connection only materialized in flashes and threatened in spurts, which proved a surprising development considering the Wolverines appeared vulnerable on the back end following the offseason departures of their top two cornerbacks, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas.
But this has been a year when expectations have been defied and the script has been scrapped, rewritten, revised again and reworked one more time.
Michigan’s opener Saturday offered the latest example of that.
The Wolverines appeared headed toward disaster at the outset. Then, just like that, they reversed course and began setting the stage for an impressive victory that gave Harbaugh his second road victory over a top-25 team since he has been at Michigan. As 2020 has showed us, things can change in the blink of an eye.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football flips script to maul Minnesota in season opener