There isn’t a question about whether or not the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines will opt to continue pounding teams with their elite rushing attack. The Wolverines enter their contest with Michigan State with the best rushing offense in the Big Ten, averaging about 241.7 rushing yards per game. That, and the fact Michigan State has the 10th-ranked rushing defense that allows 153.3 rushing yards per game, it’s as clear an offensive strategy as any.
Out of the last 52 games between the two schools, 46 of the winners had more rushing yards. But what about quarterback play? Specifically, quarterback play from a Michigan starter in their first contest against an in-state rival?
Let’s look at previous quarterback play for Michigan and what that meant for the rivalry’s final result. To do that we will ask: what did quarterback play look like for a Michigan starter’s first MSU game? What can this tell us about game play for McCarthy and the Wolverines this Saturday? Will Michigan exploit MSU’s weaker passing defense or will they stick to their tried and true method of running the ball?
When he took to the field last year against the Spartans, we highlighted how that crucial experience would better McCarthy for games to come. The type of atmosphere and playing on the road with a passionate crowd would only help him for the future. Now the future has come and it’s time to see what he can do.
Perhaps the greatest advantage McCarthy has is that he is a dual threat. The only major difference between himself and the more recent quarterbacks in the Jim Harbaugh era appears in his natural ability to run the ball. So far this season he has rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns, but will he be called upon to have a high passing yardage game?
For comparison, let’s look at the last few Michigan quarterbacks in their first start against MSU. First was Cade McNamara last year. He threw for 383 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 37-33 loss. While he completed 63% of his passes and rushed for 23 yards, he was unable to lead Michigan to multiple scoring drives in the second half.
Shea Patterson also first faced MSU on the road, throwing for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He had a 56% completion rate and rushed 24 yards to guide Michigan to a 21-7 win over the Spartans.
Then there was John O’Korn. The MSU game was much earlier that year and despite being unranked, Michigan State had a comparable record to the Wolverines. Michigan was No. 7 and would end up losing 14-10. O’Korn threw for 198 yards and three picks, with a 45% completion rate and -9 rushing yards.
For each of these games, Michigan had more passing yards in all of them compared to MSU, yet only won one. When the Wolverines outgained MSU on the ground, they won.
So then why does any of this matter? The Wolverines don’t have to live and die by a successful passing threat. Then the question arises around whether or not they should exploit the weakness that is the Spartans’ passing defense. I don’t think there is a call to take to the skies even though Michigan State will be proactive in trying to eliminate the Wolverines’ backfield. No one has stopped it yet and it’s not likely the Spartans will.
In three of the most recent first-time starts for three different quarterbacks, it didn’t entirely matter if they were successful or just bad. So if McCarthy continues to play effectively and efficiently, he could very well help Michigan bring the Paul Bunyan Trophy back to Ann Arbor.
There has been ranging talent in the past, which made the prospect of McCarthy so exciting. Do you think his impact at quarterback could change how this game will unfold? Or will history continue and the rush leader will find the glory?
Share with us your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!