Michigan’s opening week starter in 2020 was Joe Milton. A year later Milton wasn’t with the Wolverines any longer, transferring to Tennessee.
It was Cade McNamara who claimed the No. 1 spot in camp, fending off five-star true freshman J.J. McCarthy.
“He’s fighting,” Harbaugh said about McCarthy in July. “He’s got the athletic ability and the arm talent to get it done, but Cade McNamara is not letting him take it away, and that’s probably the best thing for our team and for J.J. and all of us.”
McNamara became a big leader for the Michigan team.
“He’s really stepped up. I’ve seen a big difference in him from last year this time of year and now. Even in our walkthroughs. We have player-led walkthroughs — he’s stepping up and having that voice in there,” edge-rusher, Heisman runner-up Aidan Hutchinson said at Big Ten Media Days. “I think it’s good to have a solidifying voice on the offensive side. We haven’t had that in a while and I think it’s good that Cade is in there. He’s kind of the rock of the offense right now.”
McNamara was a solidifying voice, but when the season began it was clear Michigan wanted to give McCarthy snaps and experience as well — partially because of his talent, and partially because he was always one snap from becoming the starter if McNamara were to get hurt.
“I think at a lot of places, J.J. would probably be the starting quarterback, but we have the luxury where we don’t have to throw him in the fire right away,” quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss said in late September. “We are trying to play him whenever he can get the opportunity so that he can develop. That’s really to his benefit, it’s to our benefit. We want our backup quarterback ready to play whenever he’s called upon. The best way to do that is to play him when we can.”
McCarthy didn’t play in abundance, but through Michigan’s first five games displayed his ceiling as a runner and thrower, with a 69-yard across the field touchdown pass to Daylen Baldwin against Western Michigan, and a 56-yard strike to Baldwin for a score vs. Wisconsin. McNamara was the clear-cut No. 1, but a pattern emerged where McCarthy would be inserted not only in blowout time, but also during crucial situations.
McNamara was 33-of-53 for 534 yards with 3 touchdowns through Michigan’s first four games (4-0) — the Wolverines offense was powered by their running game all season long, and they really were in the early going. Besides a second half against Rutgers where McNamara threw for just 7 yards, Michigan really didn’t need him to do more than he was doing. “When they load the box like that it comes down to us beating man coverage. I’ve gotta do a better job of throwing more accurate balls,” McNamara said.
McNamara rebounded nicely against Wisconsin in a 38-17 win, throwing for 2 TDs and displaying good accuracy on deep and intermediate throws. The following week Michigan escaped Lincoln, Nebraska with a 32-29 win over the Cornhuskers, a game where McNamara threw his first interception of the year (on what should have been an offsides call on Nebraska). He didn’t have a touchdown in the game but his 255 yards passing would be his third highest total of the season. While McNamara missed most of his deep shots, he made enough throws to keep the chains moving and put Michigan in positions to score. Still, Michigan can thank Jake Moody for the win, he went 4-for-4 and made all of his extra points.
Beautiful play call by the Michigan offense! Cade McNamara delivers a beautiful pass to Cornelius Johnson on the flea flicker. Michigan needs to continue being successful in the passing game.— CFB Blitz (@BlitzCfb) October 2, 2021
Michigan and McNamara would roll into East Lansing with a 7-0 record, the problem was Michigan State had a 7-0 record as well. McNamara had his highest passing yards total of the season against the Spartans, 383 yards with 2 touchdowns. Unfortunately his interception against MSU, just his second of the season to this point, sealed Michigan’s fate in the final minute. McCarthy played in key moments in the 37-33 loss to MSU as well — he had a clutch touchdown throw to Andrel Anthony to give Michigan a 14-13 lead, but also fumbled once on a scramble (Michigan kept possession) and fumbled the ball on a miscommunication with running back Blake Corum (McNamara was in the medical tent at the time). This turnover proved to be costly and resulted in a touchdown for the Spartans. This was a game that made the team dig down deeper, McNamara and McCarthy included. They didn’t fold, they didn’t act like the season was over.
After a win over Indiana, Michigan found itself in must-win mode on the road against Penn State. It was a nasty game and the weather was just as ugly, it took a gritty performance from running back Hassan Haskins as well as McNamara to escape Happy Valley with the W. McNamara was 19-of-29 for for 217 yards and 3 touchdowns.
After a win over Maryland and Michigan leaping over Michigan State in the College Football Playoff Rankings, Michigan’s destiny was in their hands against Ohio State at Michigan Stadium — with a win over the Buckeyes they’d head to the Big Ten Championship Game, their playoff hopes would still be alive. Despite very few folks believing Michigan had a chance, the Wolverines believed in themselves.
McNamara wasn’t the story against Ohio State, it was Hassan Haskins, who rushed for 169 yards and 5 touchdowns in Michigan’s 42-27 win. The story was Michigan’s offensive line dominating to such an extent the now late John Madden sent Jim Harbaugh a text saying it was one of the most impressive performances he’s seen in the trenches. The story was the relentless pass-rush of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo. Still, McNamara made a few key throws when Michigan really needed them. After an early interception that looked like it may have shifted momentum, McNamara settled in and got the job done. McNamara was 13-of-19 against Ohio State for 159 yards and 1 interception, with an incredibly timely throw to Cornelius Johnson that set Michigan up with goal-to-go shortly before halftime. Haskins would punch it in two plays later, and that sequence seemed to swing momentum in Michigan’s favor for good.
The Wolverines would steamroll Iowa in the Big Ten Championship Game 42-3 with McNamara going 16-of-24 for 164 yards and 1 TD, and the win guaranteed the Wolverines would head to the playoffs. No. 2 Michigan would be headed to the Orange Bowl to take on the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs.
Michigan’s offensive line bullied the opposition all season long, but the Georgia defense was relentless and had their way with them more often than not in Miami, creating a difficult situation for McNamara. While not slow, McNamara didn’t have the speed to consistently escape Georgia’s attack. McNamara had his first multiple interception game of the season, going 11-for-19 for 106 yards and 2 interceptions.
After McNamara fumbled (but didn’t turn it over) near the end of the 3rd quarter, Harbaugh brought McCarthy in with Michigan trailing 27-3. McCarthy would play the rest of the game. “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 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 in the 34-11 loss.
Outlook moving forward
Each year brings new constructs, and there will be a quarterback competition leading up to the 2022 season. “We know we have two great quarterbacks. We make no apologies for that,” Harbaugh said after the Orange Bowl. However, Harbaugh was asked a month earlier about the starting job next season, and he offered no guarantees.
“As far as long-term, who its going to be, that prediction, everyone rents that position,” Harbaugh said. “Nobody owns the position, any position on the field. Not even the head coach. You lease, at best.”
McNamara must continue to improve, no college player is a finished product. McCarthy will be a year older, smarter, stronger, more of a leader he was during his first year on campus — he’s a hungry player in his own right who will be vying for the starting job. A lot can change between now and September, and this is the mindset both young men must have if they want to be the starter. Neither are owed anything, they must earn everything. Cade McNamara now has a legacy at Michigan, he’s proven to be a great leader, he has shown he can play through pain, but more will be asked of him. It’s just the way it is. There will be a genuine competition heading into next season. There’s no reason to think he won’t get better, there’s no reason to think McCarthy won’t improve, too. May the best man win.
Final Stats for season
- McNamara: 210-of-327 (64.2%) for 2,576 yards, 15 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. 26 yards rushing, 1 TD
- McCarthy: 34-of-59 (57.6%) for 516 yards, 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. 124 yards rushing, 2 TDs.