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Analyzing Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy’s Week 1 performances

The battle is heating up.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Week 1 of the Michigan Wolverines’ season has come and gone, and the debate for Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy to be the starting quarterback finally has some tape behind it.

All offseason, we heard these two were playing the best football of their lives and have both earned the starting role. Jim Harbaugh has been extremely complimentary of both players and he is trying to balance this difficult situation.

McNamara got the start against Colorado State and it looked like he was feeling the pressure of this battle early. His first two passes of the game were errant, and his timing was just not there:

The first play on the roll-out right was one that should have been completed. McNamara had all day and there wasn’t a defender within 10 yards of receiver Cornelius Johnson. If this play is completed, and Johnson breaks a tackle, it’s probably a 10-15 yard gain.

Then came the 61-yard house call on a screen to wide receiver Roman Wilson. McNamara deserves a little credit for getting it right to him quickly, but Wilson does the bulk of the work for what was the best stat-line play for McNamara on the day:

After the interception by Rod Moore, the Wolverines were in the red zone with ample opportunity to put points on the board. Once, again, McNamara was granted a clean pocket and had Johnson over the middle, but the pass was behind him on a play that could have been a touchdown if it had been converted:

A play later, Michigan’s looking to the air again on 3rd and 10. McNamara got a bunch of flak for this ball on social media, but he actually put it right where it needed to be. Erick All, the tight end, tripped on the route after the ball had already been released. It’s probably not picking up the first down if it’s caught, but this interception wouldn’t have been on him:

On the next drive, Harbaugh got McNamara going a bit with a few easy plays. Tight end Luke Schoonmaker ran a quick comeback over the middle for a first down, then wide receiver Ronnie Bell ran a slant right over the middle of the field to move the chains on his first reception since his ACL tear.

The best throw of the day came on this drive on a play-action. Once again, the offensive line gave ample time and McNamara threw a beautiful ball over the linebacker and into Johnson’s hands over the middle:

A few plays later came his worst play of the day. Colorado State is showing blitz and is in a Cover 0 with no safety over the top. McNamara changes the play at the line of scrimmage, calling for All to line up in-line and block. Then he changes the routes for Wilson and Bell to his left.

The Rams only send five. Donovan Edwards and Trente Jones block no one as the blitz doesn't come up the middle. There is clear room for McNamara to step up into the pocket to make a throw or tuck and run. Instead, he rolls right, where All was supposed to be running a route before the change of play, and McNamara is forced to throw the ball away on 3rd and Goal. Two drives into the red zone, no end zone result for the Michigan starter:

It wasn’t until 32 seconds left in the first half that McNamara finally completed an outside ball. Johnson made a spectacular catch to tip-toe along the sideline, but it was a bad read. McNamara’s eyes were looking left the entire time. Had he looked right for a second, he had Wilson available on an out route for a decent gain:

Back into the red zone again, but McNamara starts to feel the blitz on both 2nd and 3rd down and has to throw the ball away. On the day, he was an abysmal 1-for-6 for just four yards when in the red zone. That just cannot happen when Michigan plays tougher competition. All three field goals in the game came on McNamara-lead drives.

Midway through the second half, it was McCarthy’s turn. Both his drives led to touchdowns and the Wolverines moved the ball with ease throughout.

However, to be fair, the sophomore quarterback only threw the ball four times. He also came into a game that was already in hand, and he had less than half the opportunities McNamara did to make mistakes. Still, it was nearly a flawless performance.

The added element in the read option to this offense makes it dangerous. The Wolverines have some legitimate weapons in the backfield with Corum and Edwards. And when you can keep guys on the other end guessing, it’s going to help the whole team.

True freshman running back C.J. Stokes took advantage of just that on this play:

Two defenders bolt off the edge, and McCarthy hands it off to Stokes. Both of them had to honor McCarthy could keep it himself, so they are removed from the play. Really good blocking up front opens up a huge hole for Stokes to run through. If Trevor Keegan (No. 77) doesn’t stop and turns upfield to lead block for Stokes, this is probably a house call.

The next play, McCarthy does keep it and has plenty of room ahead of him. The Colorado State edge bit on the handoff, and Schoonmaker makes a really nice block that parts the Red Sea for McCarthy. A little move to the inside, and then back to the outside gives McCarthy an easy touchdown:

His overall impact in the running game is already apparent, which could help his case to become the starter. But he has to show he can make the right decisions with his arm to solidify it without reasonable doubt. On Saturday, albeit a small sample size, he did just that.

His first completion of the day was actually very similar to McNamara’s first incompletion. Feeling the pressure left, he rolls right and converts a really simple dump-off to Max Bredeson, who gets tackled. If he would have broken it, it would have been a nice gain.

Later in the drive, McCarthy keeps another read option and picks up the first down with some fancy footwork to stay in bounds, but he made the wrong read. Had he handed it off, Edwards has one man to beat for a 40-yard touchdown:

It’s nit-picky because McCarthy still moved the chains, but this was probably his only mistake in the game.

I focused on a lot of balls from McNamara coming over the middle earlier for a reason. On one of McCarthy’s four completions, he hit a receiver on a ball I don’t think McNamara can complete. This dart to wide receiver A.J. Henning was perfectly timed on a deeper out route that converted a 3rd and 5.

A few plays later, Edwards would punch in his first touchdown of the 2022 campaign because of it.

Who is winning the QB battle?

I would say McCarthy has a slight advantage right now. Harbaugh loves running the football and that read option offense doesn’t exist with McNamara behind center. McCarthy also has the stronger arm, and it opens up more options for deep balls and harsher throws on the outside.

The offense was more successful not only in picking up yards with McCarthy, but also putting points on the board. Only 1-of-4 red zone drives from McNamara ended in a touchdown, and the one drive was all runs from Corum and Edwards. The touchdown run by McCarthy and the third down pick-up that led to a score was a direct contrast to that.

It’s still early and McCarthy needs to continue to show discipline over a larger span of games and time, but the start this Saturday gives him that opportunity. If McCarthy shines, I expect he will start Week 3 against UConn. If he struggles, we probably see more competition moving forward.