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Jim Harbaugh explains why Michigan switched to J.J. McCarthy in Orange Bowl

Harbaugh is confident in both McNamara and McCarthy, but one has mobility many quarterbacks simply don’t have.

Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl - Georgia v Michigan Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Cade McNamara may have been Michigan’s starting quarterback in 2021, but Michigan freshman QB J.J. McCarthy was utilized in a variety of big moments throughout the season, including versus Ohio State. In short, seeing McCarthy come on the field in a close game was never a surprise.

Earlier this year head coach Jim Harbaugh said that Michigan wanted to get McCarthy in games as much as they could — and in the second half against Georgia in the Orange Bowl, the Wolverines turned to McCarthy down the stretch.

McNamara was 11-of-19 for 106 yards and 2 interceptions — this was the first time McNamara threw 2 interceptions in one game during his time at Michigan. Part of McNamara’s struggles can be attributed to Georgia’s pass-rush and front-seven, who threw off his rhythm. The pocket wasn’t clean for McNamara and it was causing him to rush throws and put him in situations he couldn’t escape from with his legs.

While McNamara has functional mobility, his speed really doesn’t allow him to burst out of a bad situation and make something out of nothing. After McNamara was sacked at the tail-end of the third quarter and fumbled (he recovered it), McCarthy was brought in for the duration of the game with Michigan trailing 27-3.

“The protection just wasn’t as good as it needed to be, and J.J. gave us more of a chance to escape it, avoid it, and run because that was the reason we made that switch,” Harbaugh said.

McCarthy’s stat-line wasn’t perfect, the pass-rush made things difficult for him as well, but he showed next level escapability — the young McCarthy can really scoot. McCarthy went 7-of-17 for 131 yards and 1 TD, and rushed for 23 yards.

A 35-yard strike from McCarthy to Andrel Anthony netted the Wolverines their only touchdown of the game. The long touchdown noted above and a 25-yard dart to Erick All really stood out in a game where Michigan wasn’t able to hit enough big plays. Heading into the Orange Bowl, Michigan led the nation in plays over 50 yards.

Harbaugh was asked why Michigan brought in McCarthy and if he feels the decision and McCarthy’s performance has any bearing on how they move forward at the quarterback position — Harbaugh chose to express confidence in both McNamara and McCarthy instead of pitting one quarterback against the other.

“We know we have two great quarterbacks. We make no apologies for that,” Harbaugh said.

The bottom line is Cade McNamara greatly aided Michigan’s historic season, and J.J. McCarthy contributed in major ways as well. What does that mean in the days to come? Not a lot. Clearly Harbaugh believes in both young men, but it’s now the year 2022, there will be a new season in September — there’s going to be a whole lot of competition between now and then between McNamara and McCarthy — neither are owed anything and they’ll have to earn the right to be Michigan’s starting quarterback next season. This is a pretty good situation to be in.