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MINNEAPOLIS — Jim Harbaugh is a man of many phrases.
And Saturday night, he had a new one to describe the play of his new starting quarterback in No. 17 Michigan football's 49-24 win at No. 21 Minnesota.
"He was cool as a cucumber," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh's words were not an exaggeration.
Joe Milton was steady in the first start of his career, if not spectacular.
He hadn't played much meaningful football before Saturday's season opener against the Golden Gophers. But he played like a veteran in leading the Wolverines to their blowout win, completing 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown and rushing eight times for 52 yards and another TD.
"Tell you what, he handled everything with aplomb," Harbaugh said. "His accuracy in the passing game, real command of the offense and he ran with the football with authority and had great ball security. Really played an outstanding game.”
Other than the first drive, which stalled after an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty from Ben Mason, Milton led the Wolverines to nine consecutive scoring opportunities before being substituted for backup Cade McNamara late in the fourth quarter.
Michigan's offense leaned heavily on a run game that at one point averaged 9.4 yards per carry and finished with 256 yards and five touchdowns. But that didn't mean the Wolverines handcuffed Milton. They asked him to throw, early and relatively often, and relied on him in the run game. And Milton delivered.
For a quarterback who had attempted just 11 passes entering Saturday, the results were somewhat unexpected.
He played sound football and didn't make any costly mistakes. He stood tall in the pocket and hit open receivers. He didn't force throws into tight windows. And he was effective as a runner, including on a 23-yard burst on third-and-2 in the second quarter and during several other high-leverage or short-yardage situations throughout the game.
"He had a great game," Harbaugh said. "...It played out a lot the way I thought it would for him. He’s an intense competitor but also got that ability to focus in and the calmness at the same time, both things working together.”
Over the past two seasons, the Wolverines have praised Milton's physical abilities as he sat buried on the depth chart. His arm strength, coaches and players have said, was unparalleled. He just had to smooth out the rougher edges of his game and improve his touch and accuracy.
Milton spent much of his time working on those aspects of his game. And after the starting job opened up this offseason, he took everything up a notch or two. He sought a bigger leadership role (after taking leadership courses). He found quarterback coaches to work with on his own time for the first time in his life.
By the time Harbaugh called Milton into the office to tell him he was the starting quarterback, Milton was unsurprised. He had already known he would win the job based on the number of reps he was taking in practice.
“I kinda knew a while back," Milton said.
And he wasn't taken aback by his performance Saturday.
“I felt great. I was comfortable," Milton said. "I didn’t panic. As a first start, I wasn’t scared. I always say to myself, ‘Fear God, faith over fear.’ My touch tonight was pretty outstanding. I was pretty impressed with myself. I’ve been working on that a long time.”
Harbaugh backed up Milton's assessment. He said Milton went through his reads "extremely well," with only one miss that Harbaugh could think of.
"He was on target all night and played with the poise of a savvy veteran," Harbaugh said. "Had a great command of the offense. Ran the ball with authority and athleticism and speed and great ball security."
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it's what separates college football's elites from everyone else. It's no coincidence that Michigan has struggled to break through under Harbaugh, who entering Year Six has yet to find the typic of dynamic talent under center that will allow the Wolverines to keep pace with the best programs in the nation, particularly Ohio State.
It's far too early to say if Milton will ever be able that type of quarterback for Michigan. .
But in one start, he showed the Wolverines have someone who can handle the spotlight, after outplaying Minnesota's Tanner Morgan, who had the Big Ten's second-best passer rating in 2019.
“You know he’s gonna do his thing," said running back Hassan Haskins. "So that’s why we got all our trust in him, you feel me. We know he’s gonna do his job.”
In the hours before Saturday's game, Milton kept his emotions in check. His headphones, which blasted music as he warmed up on the field, helped him stay calm.
But when Milton got to Michigan's locker room, the emotions broke through.
“I started tearing up," he said, "because it’s real. It’s time to prove to the world who I am and what I can do."
The moment passed. Milton returned to the field. And he did exactly what he — and Harbaugh — said he would.
Contact Orion Sang at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Michigan Wolverines content.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: How Joe Milton aced his first test as Michigan football's QB1