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What we learned from Michigan’s victory over Hawaii

Starting quarterback: J.J. McCarthy.

Hawaii v Michigan Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

It has been a wild few weeks full of controversy, debate and endless speculation about what is fair and who is deserving of recognition. Fingers have been pointed and lines have been drawn in the sand. But enough about Harry Styles, Chris Pine and the Don’t Worry, Darling press tour (Team Capt. Kirk, baby), let’s talk about the biggest positional battle in the Big Ten: J.J. McCarthy vs. Cade McNamara for the right to be the Michigan Wolverines starting quarterback.

When head coach Jim Harbaugh announced McNamara would start Week 1 against Colorado State and McCarthy would start Week 2 against Hawaii, the decision was met with mixed reactions. If you are active on Twitter dot com, you were privy to the discourse.

“How could Harbaugh do this to Cade? He beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten! This is unfair!” -McNamara supporter

“J.J. is a better passer and runner, why are we delaying the future to appease a game manager?” -McCarthy supporter

The conversations were maddening because most were coming from a place of predetermined bias and favoritism. Harbaugh’s “decision” was made to allow for both players to compete when the “bullets were real.” The decision was in fact not a decision at all, but an outsourcing that took the fate of the quarterback position and placed it in the hands of two competitors.

McNamara had the first shot at a good impression and played okay against the Rams. He finished up 9-of-18 for 138 yards and one touchdown. After a slow start, he settled in and looked like the steady-hand decision-maker that guided the team in 2021.

In relief, McCarthy flashed his game-breaking athleticism, especially in the run game. McCarthy carried the rock three times for 50 yards and one touchdown, and went 4-for-4 for 30 yards passing.

McNamara was the starter, but McCarthy was the headline. Harbaugh seemed to sense that as well when discussing McCarthy in the post-game press conference:

“I thought things were operating really smooth in the first half and finally said ‘hey let’s get J.J. in there.’ And he was electric when he got in, no question about that.”

As scheduled this past Saturday, McCarthy got his chance to be the starter for the first time in his career against Hawaii, and he did not disappoint.

Back in August, when Big Ten Network (BTN) visited Ann Arbor as a part of their fall camp tour, BTN analyst Dave Revsine raved about the incumbent:

“I thought both quarterbacks looked very good, but man, McNamara — the ball never hits the ground when he’s in there. He’s so accurate, balls never hit the ground.”

It feels like McCarthy took the comments as a challenge and besides a Ronnie Bell dropped pass, the ball never hit the ground against Hawaii. McCarthy finished 11-for-12 for 229 yards and three touchdowns. In fact, that dropped pass is the only time the ball has hit the ground across two games for McCarthy as a runner and passer.

McNamara — who appeared in relief for the first time since 2020 — struggled to complete 4-of-6 passes for 26 yards and one interception. McNamara’s performance was exacerbated by offensive line miscues forcing the quarterback into lose-lose situations, but the optics of the juxtaposing performances were glaring.

In the post-game press conference, Harbaugh did not waste time when discussing McCarthy’s performance:

“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.”

While not 100% definitive, it is plausible McNamara has started his last game for Michigan.

Football is cruel. Just ask Jalen Hurts who just a few years ago lost his starting job at Alabama to Tua Tagovailoa after winning a National Championship. While that situation is comparable, McNamara’s is honestly more painful despite the lack of title.

McNamara instilled belief into a dormant program that had let losing seep into and become a part of its DNA. McNamara guided the Wolverines to their first outright Big Ten title since 2003 and first win over Ohio State since 2011. The latter is something Chad Henne, Devin Gardner (as a starting QB), and Shea Patterson could not accomplish, and the former is something even the revered Denard Robinson could not achieve.

Against Hawaii, there were audible “boos” from the stands when McNamara appeared, and that is upsetting and unacceptable. McNamara has given more to this program than 99% of those before him. He helped reset the acceptable standard for success at Michigan.

McCarthy succeeds because of the leadership and culture McNamara has worked to install in Ann Arbor. Take it from McCarthy himself:

“It’s been awesome. What better way to have a guy that’s that intelligent, that motivated, that driven, and just be able to observe him every single day and replicate some parts of his game that I can improve in mine. It’s just been an honest blessing for both us to be in this position that we’ve been in and just growing from each other.

“There’s so many outside voices that try to make us dislike each other in a way, and we’ve kinda taken that to heart. There’s been a couple practices where we’ve been like ‘man, the media really doesn’t want us to like each other,’ and we just kinda laugh at it. We take on that challenge and embrace it.”

Much like how Mark Morrison’s timeless classic “Return of the Mack” was a one-hit wonder, Cade Mac’s year of greatness was also limited to a one-season outing, but it will remain immortal to Michigan fans everywhere.

To team captain Cade McNamara, thank you for making Michigan football the best it has been since 1997. Team 142 is one of the five most important teams of the modern era (1970-present) and the most important team of the 21st century. If you transfer, you have my undying support, unless its to East Lansing or Columbus of course, but we know those aren’t options for the personification of a Michigan Man.

While McNamara’s chapter has come to a presumptive and premature close, don’t worry darling, McCarthy and Team 143 are poised to finish what Cade started. It’s time to embrace McCarthyism.

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Georgia at Michigan Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports