J.J. McCarthy has played some pretty poor competition in his first two career starts. Pure talent alone could have been the difference as the Michigan Wolverines were bigger, faster and stronger than both Hawaii and UConn.
Realistically, McCarthy could have had a repeat performance airing the ball out, showing off his arm and trusting his receivers to beat down the Huskies. Any five-star quarterback should have the performance he had against Hawaii in the Big House. To this point in his career, that is who he has been. He’s relied on that big arm and made some questionable decisions in more important games in the process.
However, that is not the J.J. McCarthy we saw on Saturday afternoon. This McCarthy stayed within the offense. He took what the defense gave him, and accurately and methodically moved the ball down the field. When he beat Cade McNamara for the job, it was clear McCarthy was the better talent, but I did question if he could make the right decisions when the guys down the field were not available.
He silenced all that doubt on Saturday when he went 15-of-18 for 214 yards. While it wasn’t as sexy as the 50-air yard bombs he tossed against the Rainbow Warriors in Week 2, this game was much more realistic to what he could be down the road.
This play in the first quarter is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s an eerily similar play to the one he hit Cornelius Johnson for 50 yards on last week. Johnson is running a deep post, but the high safety is waiting for him. McCarthy gives Blake Corum, the checkdown, a brief look to get the outside corner to take a step in. Then, he fires a dart to Ronnie Bell right into the area vacated by the corner in zone coverage. It was a beautiful decision and a gorgeous throw.
It’s the same thing here. UConn’s in a Cover 3 with two safeties and the corner guarding A.J. Henning dropping back deep. McCarthy quickly reads it and hits Henning on an out-route, getting the ball out fast enough for Henning to have enough room to turn up the field and move the chains.
What I have loved to see through these first two weeks with McCarthy starting is the connection and timing he has down with Bell. Again in zone coverage, Bell is running a deeper out route behind the first down marker, completely losing the corner on the cut. McCarthy delivered a perfect ball that Bell tip-toed in for a conversion:
Much of the Michigan play calls were screen passes because of how far the UConn secondary was playing off the line of scrimmage. A majority of his conversions came in that way, allowing his talented receivers to get the job done. The direct contrast in the offense from this week to last shows its versatility.
Still getting to be J.J. got to be J.J. The perfect example of that was this insane throw he made to Bell on the goal line. While it fell incomplete, the pass was put in a spot that only his receiver could have come down with it.
Then, later in the game, he made arguably the most impressive throw of his career. Rolling out right, McCarthy threw across his body on the run and put a ball right on the numbers to Luke Schoonmaker, who carried it down to the 1-yard line:
But he wasn’t perfect. There was a read option early in the game on third down where McCarthy kept it instead of handing it off to Corum who could have had the first down. Instead, McCarthy was tackled for a loss and the drive was dead:
One thing I wanted to see from McCarthy moving forward is scrambling out of the pocket instead of just trying to extend pass plays. His pocket presence is good, not great, but that will improve over time.
On the goal line on third down, McCarthy made a terrible pass after rolling out to his right. This is an interception in the Big Ten and a costly one inside of the red zone:
Instead, I would have loved for McCarthy to step up and try to get to the end zone with his legs. There could have been enough space there for him to at least get into a distance where Harbaugh would consider going for it on fourth down.
Overall, this was another encouraging performance from McCarthy. Now with McNamara out for several weeks, there is no backup plan. McCarthy will have to show his balance of game manager like he was against UConn and superstar like he did against Hawaii. If he can find that happy balance, Michigan is going to be in a really good position to contend for another Big Ten title and a College Football Playoff appearance.