The 2022 season ended in the College Football Playoff against the TCU Horned Frogs. J.J. McCarthy’s two interceptions forced the Michigan Wolverines to play well outside of their normal game plan. The defense could not help much, and the season came to an end short of a national title.
Fast forward to now, and McCarthy and this team are once again at the cusp of winning it all. They’re favored over the Alabama Crimson Tide and are the No. 1 team in the country after winning their third consecutive Big Ten championship. McCarthy’s play is a huge reason they are back in the hunt once again, and he has made noticeable improvements across his game.
Most importantly is the fact McCarthy is taking far less risks this season, perhaps due to a combination of things. Michigan has been in favorable situations for McCarthy this year, and Jim Harbaugh/Sherrone Moore’s playbook has been completely open for him.
Last year it felt like there were so many do or die plays on certain drives where McCarthy would force throws and occasionally make costly mistakes. It was a combination of plays breaking down, McCarthy panicking under pressure, and not throwing the ball away. Sometimes he turned into those “five-star plays,” but if it went the other way it could be detrimental.
Those “no, no, no, YES!” plays have not been as common this season. His pocket presence has improved greatly and he’s quick to get the ball out of his hands or pick up yards with his legs. Sure, they have still happened. The backhanded flip to Donovan Edwards against Indiana was a perfect example:
He had one in the Ohio State game, too, where he rolled right, threw across his body, and completed a dangerous pass to Cornelius Johnson late in the fourth quarter.
Those plays are far less common in 2023, and taking care of the football has become more of a priority for Harbaugh and his quarterback. Right after that play against Ohio State, Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt started discussing how that was exactly the kind of play that Harbaugh was trying to take out of his game to help McCarthy become a NFL quarterback. He’s been much better, but there is still room for improvement.
Luckily, Michigan has been able to work McCarthy within its system, and he is the ideal quarterback for it. He’s fleet-footed enough to roll to either side following a play-action and put a ball on a dime to a receiver. This year, it feels like he has a better understanding of the playbook and where the ball is supposed to go.
The team has gotten really inventive on getting his first option open. Roman Wilson is a cheat code because of his speed. Oftentimes, he would be put in motion and get an even better head start.
The Wolverines have designs plays like this to get Wilson open on the outside, or create mismatches with linebackers in coverage out of the slot. Michigan schemed him open so often this season, and McCarthy found him time after time.
A similar thing could be said with tight end Colston Loveland. Third-down situations were bread and butter for the sophomore.
We mentioned earlier the panic McCarthy has had previously on third downs. Look how cool and calm he is outside the pocket playing backyard ball with Loveland on this play against Indiana:
Goosebumps when JJ McCarthy redirects Colston Loveland here and the big fella goes for 54 yards and a tuddy pic.twitter.com/YRsXRnJ0aA— 〽️att Hartwell (@MaizeCrusader) October 17, 2023
McCarthy knew exactly where he was going with the ball, directed his receiver who was on the same page as him, and delivered a strike for a first down. Cool, composed, and decisive — something we didn’t see from McCarthy as much in 2022.
Having these weapons that McCarthy has grown with the last two seasons has been massive because both have been so reliable. Michigan had maybe one of those guys in Ronnie Bell in 2022 — noe there’s at least two with Wilson and Loveland.
When those two have not been open, McCarthy has also improved greatly with knowing when to pull the ball, and run or drop it off to his check down. Last season, Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum had a combined 29 catches, but this year that number increased drastically to 44 receptions, and Edwards has 30 receptions himself.
It may appear the team is throwing the ball more, but through 13 games, McCarthy is actually on pace to throw the ball less this season. He finished with 322 after the TCU game last season, and only has 287 this year. The emphasis on this over the offseason was clear, not only as a way to get Edwards involved, but also training McCarthy to pick up a few yards over going for a home run on every play.
Along those lines, it feels like McCarthy has taken more sacks this year. That’s a weird thing to boast, but he’s falling on the football more often and not trying to make things happen that aren’t there. He was dropped 17 times last season in 14 games — that is already up to 18 in 13 games this season. He’s hard to bring down, but I’d rather see him live another down then have a risky pass attempt.
Overall, we’ve seen small improvements that have meant a lot to the success of the team this year and why they could come away with a national championship a few weeks from now. McCarthy has been fine tuning his already-elite repertoire to become one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The Wolverines haven’t always leaned on him in 2023 and have won games without him playing much of a factor. But if Michigan is to win it all, we will need to see him at his peak, and he’s been prepping all year to get there.