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Inside the Numbers: Assessing the ceilings of Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy

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This is where McNamara and McCarthy are at, but what can they become?

Northwestern v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Michigan is 7-0, they’re the No. 6 team in the nation, and they’re about to have a huge game in East Lansing against 7-0 No. 8 Michigan State.

Michigan is coming off a 33-7 win over Northwestern, a game where quarterback Cade McNamara didn’t have to carry the team on his shoulders due to the rushing success of Hassan Haskins (110 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Blake Corum (118 yards, 2 touchdowns).

After the game Jim Harbaugh said he was pleased with McNamara’s performance, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald said that McNamara doesn’t get enough credit and takes what the defense gives him.

Still, five-star true freshman J.J. McCarthy continues to see action, and Harbaugh said last month he wants to get McCarthy inserted into games “as much as we can”. FOX Sports analyst Joel Klatt, who has called a lot of Michigan games in recent memory, believes Michigan’s offense is limited with McNamara at the helm.

“We have seen, at times, the passing game come alive. Against Wisconsin, in a game in which they needed to throw the ball down the field, they were able to. They got the flea flicker touchdown to Cornelius Johnson, they throw a long touchdown to Daylen Baldwin down the sideline. We didn’t see those explosive pass plays today. They were unable to get them against that Northwestern defense,” Klatt said after McNamara went 20-of-27 for 129 yards.

Michigan has the No. 5 ranked rushing offense, but rank 104th in passing offense and 55th in team passing efficiency. McNamara has 7.6 yards per attempt, 5 touchdown passes, and just 1 interception. While McNamara’s stats aren’t flashy, he’s been steady overall and the team is undefeated with him at the helm.

“Cade McNamara is consistent. He doesn’t turn the football over. He gives them the best chance to win. But there’s a ceiling on that offense at that point. They need to find somebody special on the outside who can take the offense above the X’s and O’s. They haven’t had that since Ronnie Bell left this lineup with an injury against Western Michigan.”

If Michigan is forced to pass aplenty Klatt questions whether McNamara has the ability to carry the offense. Michigan’s biggest and yearly threat, Ohio State, can run and pass at a high level — the Buckeyes have the 7th ranked passing offense and a formidable 25th ranked rushing offense. Michigan might have to win in a shootout one of these days, despite being currently ranked 11th in total defense.

“That’s a huge question mark, because going down the back end of this season — going against Michigan State next week or Penn State or Ohio State, a number of these games. What they’re gonna have to do is throw the football. Somebody’s gonna take away their ability to run the ball, similar to what Wisconsin did. Now, the commitment to it will help, because you can get to play action pass. But at some point, they’re gonna have to make plays in the passing game.”

McNamara has made his fair share of big passing plays. Two that stick out in major fashion are a 34-yard flea flicker touchdown to Cornelius Johnson against Wisconsin, and a 87-yard score to Johnson versus Northern Illinois.

There are certainly things to commend McNamara for — he’s a great leader, has a serious and focused demeanor, and is willing to be aggressive down the field. Consistently hitting shots beyond 20 yards down the field can matter just as much as what he excels at, short-to-intermediate throws. However, some stats matter in the other direction — such as McNamara having 7 yards passing in the second half against Rutgers last month, a game the Michigan offense didn’t score in after halftime and won narrowly by a score of 20-13.

If Michigan is forced to pass in the coming weeks against the likes of Michigan State, Indiana, Penn State, Maryland, and Ohio State, Klatt believes the insertion of McCarthy methodically throughout the season has had a rhyme and reason to it.

“This is why J.J. McCarthy has been brought along during the course of the season. At that moment, you have answers, and if Cade is not the guy to provide the answer, you’re gonna have to insert McCarthy into the lineup,” Klatt said. “Whether they do that or not remains to be seen, but at least they have the options. Offensively, we’ll see if they have to go that direction here in November or even next week on Halloween weekend against in-state rival Michigan State.”

McCarthy is undoubtedly a highly gifted athlete, — someone who won a National Championship at IMG Academy in 2020, finishing his high school career with a 36-2 record starting, 7,905 career passing yards, 94 touchdowns to 13 interceptions. McCarthy threw for 1,392 yards and 16 touchdown passes with zero interceptions during his senior season/National Championship campaign.

McCarthy has shown he’s a gunslinger, but his high school stats tell us something else — he’s more careful with the football than perception may indicate. Just because a player is willing to take deep shots does not mean they are consistently careless with the football.

To this point in the season McCarthy has gone 12-of-19 for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns passing with an average of 13.3 yards per attempt. The sample size is small, but just as McNamara has a couple notable deep balls this year, so does McCarthy. One of the throws was an impressive 69-yard touchdown across the field throw to Daylen Baldwin versus Western Michigan, the other a 56-yard touchdown dart to Baldwin against Wisconsin.

One area where it’s clear McCarthy has an advantage is with his legs. Make no mistake, McNamara has good escapability as a quarterback, but McCarthy has the speed and moves to really do damage in the open field.

McCarthy is more of a threat to the opposition in the read-option game, and has also shown he can extend plays at a level most quarterbacks simply cannot — this was on display against Northwestern.

“This team has more answers when you take away their first option than they’ve had in previous years,” Klatt said. “Michigan has potentially the option to go to J.J. McCarthy if they need it.”

And that’s where Michigan’s at with McNamara and McCarthy. Jim Harbaugh has handled the quarterback situation great thus far — the team is undefeated, the young McCarthy has been gaining experience and has done enough to warrant more playing time, McNamara isn’t going to give the offense too many self inflicted wounds and he has the ability to improve, too. This isn’t a bad situation to have, not even in the slightest.