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Tape Breakdown: Why J.J. McCarthy won the starting gig in win over Hawaii

He was nearly perfect.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The controversial and public quarterback battle between J.J. McCarthy and Cade McNamara is officially over. Sunday evening, in his postgame press conference, Head Coach Jim Harbaugh officially announced McCarthy as the starter following the Michigan Wolverines' 56-10 blowout win over the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors.

“J.J. had a near flawless performance. 11-for-12 and then one was dropped. That’s tough to do any day of the week in practice,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he had a great game. He’s playing really well, we’ll start J.J. next week.”

The stats speak for themselves. McCarthy racked up 229 yards and three touchdowns averaging 19.1 yards per completion. The offense hummed to a 42-0 advantage before even heading into the halftime break. At that point, the sophomore quarterback’s day was done, and so was the quarterback competition.

McCarthy put everything on display in the dominant performance. Most notably, his deep ball was on point, and it has been an element that has been so widely missed for the maize and blue for quite some time. His first pass of the game was a great example. A play-action causes the whole defense to bite, including both safeties. Roman Wilson cruises past his defender in single-coverage and is wide open over the middle. This ball would be too deep for many of the quarterbacks that have lined up in the Harbaugh tenure, but not McCarthy:

In the second quarter, he flashed that strong arm again. Once again, it was a play-action with Ronnie Bell running a crossing route over the middle. The single-high safety bites on Bell, leaving a streaking Cornelius Johnson wide open over the middle. I think McNamara completes this ball to Bell, but McCarthy has the arm to drop it in a bucket over 50 air yards down the field

He did it one more time in the game finding Donovan Edwards deep down the sideline. This ball was put in a spot where only Edwards could catch it. He put it over the corner and too far towards the sideline for the safety to catch up. It was maybe his best throw of the day, because the window was a little tighter than the other two deep balls we have seen to his point:

The first two are throws you get when playing a terrible team like Hawai’i. Michigan was clearly the much better football team, and it was not even close. You are going to get one, maybe two opportunities on these deep balls in a game against much better competition, and the windows will be far tighter. McCarthy got two of these wide-open plays in the first half. While he still had the pressure on him to complete these passes, it’s just not realistic to expect that to happen every week.

More of the passes that looked like they were coming from a Jim Harbaugh offense were the ones that excited me most on Saturday. The Michigan wideouts are highly explosive players. Ronnie Bell is phenomenal in space. Cornelius Johnson is one of the best downfield and 50/50-ball receivers in the Big Ten. And Roman Wilson may be the fastest player in the conference. Then you add in those gritty and smart tight ends and pass-catching backs and the weapons around McCarthy are going to be unbelievably impressive. The more he can put them in positions to shine, the more McCarthy will shine.

This pass on a crossing route to Bell was the perfect example of that:

McNamara missed a very similar throw last week throwing behind Cornelius Johnson early, costing the Wolverines a touchdown:

Converting this stuff underneath is huge for the offense. The velocity that the ball has coming out of McCarthy’s hands gives them even more time to turn to the open field in front of them and make some magic happen.

It’s also about finding the holes in the defense and moving the sticks. McCarthy was highly successful at reading zone coverage and making the easy ones. He put a lot of passes like that right on the money:

He did it again later in the game zipping a ball to Bell who was wide open in the flat. Another pass that had the chains moving:

Then, you get to throw in the RPO (run-pass-option) where defenses actually have to respect the legs of the Michigan quarterback. The only other time that has happened was when Shea Patterson and Joe Milton were at quarterback. But, the difference is that McCarthy has a much better arm than either of those guys. He’s the first full-package quarterback that Harbaugh has had at Michigan.

This allows unique plays like this one where McCarthy has the option to hand it off, run, or dump it off to his tight end in the flat. Here, he makes the right decision, and Erick All picks up the first down:

On the goal line is especially when the RPO can be successful, as seen on the touchdown pass to Bell. There is not a lot of room there for McCarthy to squeeze in the ball while Bell runs a slant and the safety shoots towards the pass. But, there is just enough juice on the ball to finish the drive with a score:

Last, but certainly not least, is the improvisation that McCarthy affords. There were plenty of wow plays on the night, but this one left just about everyone’s jaw dropped. Pocket collapsing, on the run, McCarthy tucks to run, stops, and delivers a perfect ball to Johnson in the endzone to close out the half:

That play to end the two-minute drill at the end of the half was the final nail in the coffin. It was a Heisman-caliber throw in the midst of a performance that was equally as impressive. He elevated this offense to a different level that McNamara is not capable of, and it is why he is now the starter moving forward.

If he keeps up this kind of play against better competition, who knows how high the Wolverines can climb in 2022.