ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Is the Joe Milton era over before Michigan football even got halfway through a shortened season?
Milton was pulled late in the third quarter against Wisconsin with the Wolverines trailing 35-3, and backup quarterback Cade McNamara came in to lead a touchdown drive.
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Coaches and teammates were excited about Milton coming into the season, but McNamara made some of the best throws the Wolverines have gotten all season.
Now, heading into the second half of the regular season, Jim Harbaugh said the two quarterbacks are back in competition.
Here’s how the first eight drives of the game went with Milton under center:
- 1 play, 0 yards, interception
- 3 plays, -6 yards, interception
- 3 plays, 2 yards, punt
- 3 plays, 5 yards, punt
- 13 plays, 74 yards, turnover on downs
- 3 plays, 14 yards, end of the first half
- 7 plays, 47 yards, field goal
- 3 plays, 3 yards, punt
Not counting the partial possession at the end of the first half, Michigan either turned the ball over or went three-and-out in five of seven possessions. Starting the game with two interceptions and two quick three-play drives absolutely demoralized an already struggling defense.
As bad as Don Brown’s unit has been, the offense is just as much to blame for what happened against Wisconsin.
The defense was fired up after a stop on the first drive of the game, but on the very next play, the Badgers get an interception and the defense is forced to go right back onto the field. It’s worth noting the interception was more the fault of tight end Nick Eubanks than Milton.
After the Badgers scored, Michigan committed a penalty, rushed for a loss of three yards, rushed for two yards on second and 18 -- a questionable play call by Gattis -- and then turned it over on a poor pass by Milton.
Four plays later, another Wisconsin touchdown. Suddenly, a team that’s came into the game on fragile footing is down 14 points, and the players didn’t handle it well.
Michigan gained two yards on its next possession and punted it away. Wisconsin scored again. Then Michigan went five yards on the following possession. Wisconsin scored again.
It was 28-0 about 20 minutes into the game, and in four drives, Michigan had possessed the ball for a total of
five minutes and 14 seconds.
The simple fact of the matter is Michigan’s offense under Milton wasn’t getting the job done. That’s why Harbaugh had to give McNamara a chance.
It was jarring how quickly the offense flipped a switch when McNamara came in -- whether that’s because he’s a better fit or they simply needed a change to inject some energy remains to be seen.
When McNamara came in, the game had already been decided. Michigan was down 35-3 with 4:40 left in the third quarter, and it had been 40 minutes and 20 seconds of complete misery for the Wolverines and their fans.
On the first play, McNamara fired a strike over the middle to Ronnie Bell for a 23-yard gain. After a Blake Corum run, McNamara hit Eubanks for 28 yards down the right sideline.
The very next play was a perfectly thrown 23-yard touchdown to Mike Sainristil -- pretty much the only positive highlight for Michigan all night.
To top it off, McNamara hit Giles Jackson on a perfect touch pass for the two-point conversion.
McNamara only completed one of his final four passes the rest of the game, but that touchdown drive offered a glimpse of his ability.
Michigan has insisted McNamara could be a starting caliber quarterback, and he sure looked like it for four plays. Josh Gattis said during the offseason that McNamara was the No. 1 quarterback target on Alabama’s recruiting board in 2019, so the potential is obviously there.
Milton has had his struggles, but he’s also had positive moments, and he’s certainly not the main reason the team is off to a 1-3 start.
But the limitations that existed before this season are still there. Milton struggles with accuracy, especially down the field. Without the ability to attack the secondary, Michigan’s running game has been crippled by loaded defensive fronts.
If McNamara can spread the ball out and move down the field through the air -- as he did during the touchdown drive -- Michigan can be more two-dimensional and rediscover the running game that led the way to the only win of the season.
Milton is a talented player, and he shouldn’t automatically lose the job he worked all offseason to earn just because McNamara put together one impressive drive. But Michigan’s offense simply hasn’t been good enough, and if a change at quarterback is necessary, well, McNamara seems ready to take his shot.