ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Michigan football fans have every right to be excited about Cade McNamara after he scored five touchdowns and led a 17-point comeback against Rutgers. But in the back of their minds, everyone is wondering, “Am I falling for it again?”
What is “it”? “It” is what the Michigan football program does to its fans every year: Overhype. False hope. Fake-outs. Enough to justify a friendly fire version of the “intent to deceive” penalty.
Whether it’s offseason praise or outlier performances, Michigan has a way of drawing fans in only to bring them crashing down. Especially at quarterback.
McNamara beats Rutgers
Look at the position since Jim Harbaugh arrived. For six years the team has floundered at the most important position on the field, finding solid options but never one to get the Wolverines over the hump.
On Saturday, McNamara put together one of the most impressive performances for a passer in the Harbaugh era, completing 27 of 36 passes for 260 yards, four passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown.
McNamara was completely in control of the offense, beating Rutgers defenders over the top, across the middle of the field and even on the ground when his read was to hand off. Hassan Haskins finished the game over 100 rushing yards because McNamara forced the Scarlet Knights to respect Michigan downfield, opening up the line of scrimmage for a guy who doesn’t come down easily.
They say one player can’t win a game in football, and that’s mostly true. But if there’s one position that can, it’s quarterback.
The first five drives of the game, Michigan failed to put a single point on the board. Josh Gattis’ offense looked completely stagnant and allowed Rutgers to sprint out to a 17-point lead.
McNamara came in and led six touchdown drives from the end of the second quarter through the third overtime. Michigan’s offense went from dormant to explosive in the blink of an eye, and the only change was at the quarterback position.
McNamara won that game, and he did it in a way that could easily change the trajectory of Michigan’s season.
Or, it could end up looking like the latest blip on the radar of Michigan quarterback misery.
One-hit-wonders at QB
The best example of how Michigan can deke its fan base into false belief is John O’Korn -- a name that, among Michigan fans, is approaching the infamy of saying “Voldemort” at Hogwarts.
But there was a fleeting moment when O’Korn was more or less in the same position as McNamara finds himself right now.
After an injury to starter Wilton Speight at Purdue in 2017, O’Korn finally got to put his Winged Helmet to use. He marched up and down the field against the Boilermakers, completing 18 of 26 passes for 270 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
O’Korn was accurate. He was decisive. He developed a great rapport with mismatch tight end Zach Gentry. Michigan fans were buzzing about him heading into the next game against Michigan State.
Then, he completed just 16 of 35 attempts for 198 yards and three interceptions. By the end of the year, he’d completed just 53.5% of his passes for an average of 6.2 yards, with two touchdowns and six picks.
Yeah, not good.
When O’Korn finally lost his job just three games later, Brandon Peters took over against -- who else? -- the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Peters completed 10 of 14 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. He looked comfortable in the offense and, as an elite recruit, energized the fan base once again.
By the end of the season, he had completed just 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.2 yards, with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
It’s been the same thing over and over for Michigan at quarterback. Shea Patterson looked great at moments and lost at others. Speight tore through Ohio State’s defense for a half in 2016 and then started throwing to the wrong team.
One month ago to the day, Joe Milton inspired the Wolverines with a strong debut against Minnesota. It took just four games for that era to come crashing to an end.
There’s plenty of reason to believe in McNamara -- primarily because he’s succeeded every time Michigan turned his way.
After the offense failed to get into the end zone for the entire game against Wisconsin, McNamara came in, completed four passes and led a quick touchdown drive, capped with a two-point conversion. Many -- myself included -- thought that should be enough to give him the start at Rutgers.
But instead, he waited his turn, then calmly led Michigan back from a massive deficit to avoid a humiliating loss.
Gattis has famously said on multiple occasions that McNamara was the No. 1 quarterback target on Alabama’s recruiting board when he worked under Nick Saban in 2018.
McNamara was a four-star recruit and the No. 7 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class. He was the No. 1 player in Nevada and No. 268 overall.
In the last decade-plus, there have been dozens of quarterbacks around the country with less impressive pedigrees who ended up being better than whoever Michigan started under center.
There are really only two reasons to doubt what McNamara has done: Michigan’s recent quarterback history and the coaching staff’s baffling reluctance to turn to him when it was clearly the right move.
Milton wasn’t the main reason for Michigan’s struggles this season, but he was clearly part of the reason the offense looked so limited. Rutgers was the perfect opportunity to give McNamara a shot, but the staff was willing to wait until the brink of defeat -- 17-0! -- before making the move.
Why is that? When Dylan McCaffrey -- once the presumed leader to start for Michigan -- decided to transfer, multiple reports agreed it was at least in part due to McNamara’s emergence as the No. 2 behind Milton.
Switching quarterbacks certainly isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, and maybe Michigan’s hesitation says more about how Milton looks in practice than any lack of faith in McNamara.
Still, it makes you wonder. This is Michigan, after all.
Even though Penn State is still winless on the season, everyone expects to see that preseason top 10 team emerge for at least one game. Could that be this weekend? Michigan’s defense is the perfect remedy for an ailing offense.
No matter what Harbaugh says publicly, McNamara will get a full week of preparation as the starter for the first time, and when he takes the field for the team’s first drive, the game will be his responsibility. He won’t be playing savior with nothing to lose.
If he continues to run the offense effectively, it’ll go a long way toward legitimizing his success against Rutgers. If he suddenly struggles with accuracy and decision making, well, we know how that cycle progresses.
Michigan has been searching for a game changer at quarterback for more than a decade, and one game against Rutgers isn’t going to erased that history. But McNamara passed his first test with flying colors, and at the very least, Michigan has some hope.