This felt like a coronation. On a rain-soaked field in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines scored touchdowns on six of J.J. McCarthy’s seven drives, en route to a 56-10 whitewash of Hawaii. Whether you’re Team McNamara or Team McCarthy, everybody saw pretty much what they expected to see Saturday. McCarthy’s final line, for what it’s worth, was 11 of 12 for 229 yards (19.1 YPA), 3 TDs, and a 16-yard run to boot.
If Cade had started this game, Michigan obviously wins, albeit not as comfortably. However, what cannot be countered is the playbook is significantly bigger when McCarthy’s in the game. The read and run/pass options become not only viable but staples. I’m not exaggerating when I say Michigan is playing with one arm behind its back with McNamara in the game. There’s been no evidence McCarthy is not capable of everything McNamara is, but the reverse cannot be said. With McCarthy, opposing defenses have literally twice as much to prepare for. Under McNamara, anyone can see the offense is limited to be sure.
Johnson need not be polled
Nobody has to ask wide receiver Cornelius Johnson his choice for quarterback. McNamara missed him several times a week ago, but each time McCarthy targeted him against Hawaii, the ball was right on the money, including a perfect downfield throw that caught him in stride for 54 yards. One play later, McCarthy threw a 13-yard laser to Ronnie Bell, a dart he didn’t have any choice but to catch for the touchdown. In his lone two-minute drill, McCarthy, rolling to his left, squared his shoulders and delivered a perfect 17-yard strike to Johnson in the end zone.
A tale of two quarterbacks
The contrast between the two signal callers was front and center right around the 4:30-mark of the second quarter. The pocket began to breakdown and McNamara’s only option was to throw underneath to a covered Bell for a two-yard pickup on first down. Two plays later it became even starker when the pocket failed at once up the middle. McCarthy in that situation at least has a shot at evading the rush, getting outside the pocket, and extending the play. McNamara, on the other hand, was a sitting duck.
The offense led by McCarthy is smoother, more rhythmic, more efficient, and more productive. No, we don’t have the luxury of equal sample sizes. Harbaugh can’t stay the course from now till two games into next year’s conference schedule before taking a mulligan. But what we can do is look at McNamara’s production last year relative to his peers.
Just the facts, ma’am
Of the 130 FBS quarterbacks who dropped back to pass the most in 2021, this is how McNamara stacked up. Green means he’s in the top 25, yellow top 50, and red bottom 80. (All stats and rankings courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com)
The key to understanding this table is to know what you should be looking for. McNamara believers might be tempted to point out Georgia’s Stetson Bennett only completed two percent more passes — that McNamara’s not that far behind Bennett. They’d be especially inclined to emphasize his most-touted trait — his ability to protect the football. Indeed, he was careless with the football four less times than Bennett. As Lee Corso might have said a couple decades ago to a player being 33 percent better than the competition, “That ain’t too bad.” Of the above seven, though, that’s the only metric McNamara is significantly better at when compared to the Bulldog walk-on. The two make the same number of big-time throws and interceptions are a virtual push. Being on target two percent less would be bad enough, but when you add in he’s gaining two yards less per attempt, the gap between them is substantial.
You might think it unfair to expect McNamara to be better than the quarterback of the reigning national champions in any area, let alone most. But, my friend, that is the entire point. It’s not enough for McNamara to be as good as Bennett. He has to be better than Bennett because Bennett has better players — significantly better. And you got to make up the ground somehow. McCarthy is Michigan’s best shot at that somehow.
This year’s schedule is the easiest since it was the Big 2 Little 8. That’s not to say this is going to be a cakewalk. Penn State and Michigan State will likely be formidable and Ohio State is obviously one of the most talented teams in the country. Relatively easy schedule notwithstanding, a shot at the conference title is anything but guaranteed.
Remember who you are
Despite Michigan’s two-decade stint in purgatory, from which it mercilessly returned last year, the program has been steadfast in holding itself to the gold standard set by the late, great Bo Schembechler, who was able, on average, to beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten, and go to the Rose Bowl every other year. I recall Lloyd Carr in 2007 eloquently putting it on his way out, Michigan will always stand for “winning with integrity.”
Replacing McNamara with McCarthy is not the equivalent of the rich man of Luke 12, who wasn’t content and became too greedy. This is college football, and if no. 1 Alabama’s escape from Austin Saturday or, better yet, sixth-ranked Texas A&M falling at the hand of dreaded Appalachian State tells you one thing, it tells you it’s about survival. Contrary to one popular belief, the Maize and Blue don’t have to redefine success in order to find themselves nationally relevant. Positioning yourself best to accomplish your stated goals just makes good sense.
McCarthy, who all of last year took zero third down snaps against a Power-5 opponent with the game in doubt, has been handled with kid gloves since he arrived in Ann Arbor. And Saturday can hardly be considered a complete departure. The Rainbow Warriors’ best chance at salvaging a W this season comes this Saturday when they host Duquesne. But if Michigan wants to repeat as conference champs for the 26th time in its illustrious history, the gloves need to come off and for good.