Joe Milton answers Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback question in blowout of Minnesota

When will Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh develop a quarterback he recruited? When will Harbaugh beat Ohio State?

It’s the endless two-part referendum that has come to define Harbaugh’s tenure with the Wolverines.

Joe Milton answered the first question for No. 18 Michigan in an impressive 49-24 victory against No. 21 Minnesota on Saturday. Milton’s development over the next seven weeks — and Michigan’s ability to build toward that Ohio State game — will determine whether the Wolverines can answer that second question for the first time in six tries under Harbaugh.

Milton, a redshirt sophomore, had an impressive debut for the Wolverines: He finished 15 of 22 passing for 225 yards and a score. He added eight rushes for 52 yards and another score. Michigan flashed a diversified offense under second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis that buried the Gophers in the battle for the Little Brown Jug.

This is the kind of team with which Harbaugh can thrive. Four different Michigan players scored rushing touchdowns, and the offense rolled up 253 rushing yards. Milton spread the ball out to nine different receivers. The Wolverines made big plays on defense and special teams to cruise to an unexpected blowout, considering Minnesota was coming off an 11-win season under P.J. Fleck.

The first week of the Big Ten season revealed a familiar storyline that has unfolded over the past six seasons: Michigan appears to be the best competition for No. 5 Ohio State, which looked routinely dominant against Nebraska in a 52-17 earlier in the day.

Who else is going to do it? No. 8 Penn State suffered myriad mistakes and lost 36-35 to Indiana in overtime. No. 14 Wisconsin routed Illinois 45-7, but the Badgers do not have Ohio State on the regular-season schedule. So yes, after one week the Wolverines would have to be considered a threat — however minor — to the Buckeyes’ run at a fourth straight Big Ten championship.

Does that mean anything right now? Of course not. Given the Buckeyes have outscored the Wolverines 118-66 in the last two meetings, how wide that talent gap is won’t be determined until Dec. 12. The trick for Michigan will be to stay focused on the six games before that trip to Ohio Stadium.

Milton’s development is the most intriguing part of that process. The 6-5, 243-pound quarterback played in mop-up duty behind Shea Patterson the last two seasons, but impressed against Minnesota after taking the starting job this offseason when Dylan McCaffrey opted to transfer.

Milton didn’t commit a turnover. The Gophers blocked a punt on the opening possession, but the Wolverines either scored or were at least in possession to score (three missed field goals) on the next 10 possessions. Milton commanded the offense and showed flashes of the big-time talent that generated the usual early-season hype. At minimum, this is Michigan’s most interesting offense under Harbaugh, even if there is no true superstar.

The reports of Harbaugh’s demise are exaggerated, too. The Wolverines will inch closer to the top 10 as a result of this victory. The schedule is set up in Michigan’s favor, as well: The Wolverines have road games at Indiana and Rutgers before the season finale at Ohio State.

The home schedule starts with Michigan State on Oct. 31 — a rivalry that cannot be taken lightly, despite the Spartans’ disastrous opener — before matchups with Penn State, Wisconsin and Maryland. The Wolverines are 4-0 at Michigan Stadium against the Nittany Lions and Badgers under Harbaugh. That’s a stat that quickly gets lost in the futility against the Buckeyes.

Michigan is in position to be at least 6-1 with this schedule. But there are still concerns with the Wolverines, albeit on defense at this point. Minnesota had two touchdown drives of 10 plays or more, and running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed 26 times for 140 yards. Michigan still had five sacks, and defensive coordinator Don Brown has a formula that works against lesser competition.

Will it be different against the Buckeyes? Again, who knows? Ohio State has no reason to be scared of a program that hasn’t won at The Shoe since 2000, but the Wolverines gave the Buckeyes more to think about than any other Big Ten team in Week 1.

That is where the Big Ten story is usually decided anyway. At least Michigan has a good starting point. There’s no question about that.

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