ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The Michigan quarterback controversy is over, but there’s another issue that needs to be addressed.
On Saturday, in the first start of his college career, J.J. McCarthy erased any doubt that he’s deserving of the QB1 title, completing 11 of 12 pass attempts for 229 yards and three touchdowns. His only incompletion of the night was a dropped pass, and the Wolverines scored seven touchdowns on his eight drives.
The duel between McCarthy and Cade McNamara had been dominating conversations surrounding the Michigan football program for months. Now, that situation has been resolved. Emphatically.
But there’s something Michigan fans need to hear: McNamara might have lost the starting job, but he still deserves your respect.
McNamara booed during rough game
Hidden within McCarthy’s coronation as the new leader of Michigan’s offense was a much more disappointing development.
It began when McNamara first entered the game, with Michigan up 35-0 after scoring touchdowns on five of its first six drives. The reception for last year’s starter was nothing like when McCarthy typically enters games, but that’s to be expected. By now, McNamara is certainly used to it.
First, let’s talk about what actually happened on the field.
McNamara connected with Ronnie Bell for a nine-yard gain on the first play, and then handed off to Blake Corum for a 20-yard scamper.
On first and 10, McNamara had to dump the ball off to Corum in the flat because of an oncoming Hawaii defender. Michigan gained two yards -- no big deal.
Here’s where the drive -- and really, the entire second half -- began to go south. McNamara hit C.J. Stokes right in the hands for what likely would have been another first down along the sideline, but Stokes dropped the pass, setting up a third down and eight.
Then, Zak Zinter whiffed on a block and let Blessman Ta’ala come tearing into the backfield, and he sacked McNamara to end the drive. It wasn’t just Hawaii’s first sack of the game -- it was Hawaii’s first sack of the season, and the Rainbow Warriors have already played three games.
McNamara trotted off the field to scattered boos.
To start the second half, McNamara completed his only pass of the first drive before Tavierre Dunlap was stuffed on third and two to set up another punt. When McNamara returned to the field, he did so to student section chants of “We want Orji,” referring to true freshman quarterback Alex Orji.
Yes, Orji has a funny name, and he scored a touchdown last weekend. But why does it seem that every quarterback on the roster has the support of the fan base, except for the one who actually went out and helped win a Big Ten championship?
McNamara was sacked on the first play of that following drive. He had no chance to escape after Connor Jones played matador to John Tuitupou’s bull. Even though McNamara completed a 10-yard pass over the middle to Colston Loveland on third down, that drive also ended in a punt.
More boos. More calls for Orji. Keep in mind, Michigan was winning by 40 points. It didn’t take a body language expert to see the effect it had on McNamara.
His final play was the only true mistake he made: an under-thrown pass down the sideline to Andrel Anthony that was picked off by Virdel Edwards II.
Overall, for the second straight week, McNamara didn’t play very well. But other than the interception, he was 4-of-5 for 26 yards, and the only incompletion was a dropped pass. His offensive line, Stokes, and the situation as a whole did him no favors.
McNamara’s impact on Michigan
Based on the fan base’s initial reaction to these accusations, one trend is obvious: Many, many people underestimate how important McNamara was to Michigan’s success in 2021.
To be clear: Anyone who thinks McNamara wasn’t a critical factor in beating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, and qualifying for the playoff is wrong. Ask his teammates, who voted him a captain. Ask his head coach, who played quarterback in the NFL. Ask the voters who named him third-team All-Big Ten.
His statistics might not jump off the page, but McNamara was exactly what the Wolverines needed a year ago. He ran the offense to perfection, put his teammates in positions to succeed, and most importantly, avoided costly mistakes that could have derailed the season.
If what McNamara did was so easy, why did it take Michigan 18 years to find a quarterback who could do it well enough to win the conference?
When McNamara took over as the starting quarterback in 2020, the football program was in a bad place. Specifically, the team had a 1-3 record and trailed Rutgers (yes, Rutgers!) by a score of 17-0.
If Jim Harbaugh hadn’t benched Joe Milton, the Wolverines would have lost that game and fallen to 1-4. Instead, he brought in McNamara, and everything changed.
On the first drive, McNamara connected on his first two pass attempts for a combined 60 yards to put the Wolverines on the board. A few hours later, he celebrated a comeback victory after throwing for 260 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions.
“What happens if we win out?” McNamara famously screamed in the locker room after the game. Fans loved him then -- maybe because he was the backup quarterback.
Many of the people who booed McNamara on Saturday might have forgotten some details about the 2021 regular season, when McNamara won every single game except for one: Michigan State. The Wolverines lost that game because McNamara -- who threw for 383 yards and two touchdowns -- had to come out with an injury. On the ensuing play, McCarthy and Corum botched a handoff, and Michigan State marched right down the field to score the winning touchdown.
Those types of crippling errors have haunted the Michigan football program the past two decades. It’s no coincidence that when McNamara was on the field, those errors disappeared.
Chad Henne lost to Appalachian State. Jake Rudock blew his first game with three interceptions. Wilton Speight cost Michigan the 2016 Ohio State game with an ugly pick-six. Cade McNamara’s only non-injury-related loss as Michigan’s starting quarterback came against the eventual national champions in a playoff game.
Yes, Hassan Haskins was obviously a critical part of last year’s success. So was David Ojabo, and Aidan Hutchinson, and Daxton Hill, and a whole host of other players. But nobody wins big in college football without strong quarterback play, and the 2021 Michigan Wolverines were no exception.
A message for Michigan fans
A mere 12 months ago, the Michigan football program was unranked, coming off a losing season, and one more down year from possibly parting with Harbaugh in a Scott Frost-esque disaster. It had been 19 years since the team’s last conference title, and 25 years since the last 12-win season.
Now, the Wolverines are the defending Big Ten champs. They’re one of just 13 teams to ever make the College Football Playoff, and once again find themselves ranked among the top four teams in the country.
Anyone who remembers the Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke years will agree Michigan’s got it pretty damn good right now. And Cade McNamara, whether you want to admit it or not, is a big reason for that.
So, to all Michigan fans, I challenge you to do the following:
- Celebrate McCarthy without vilifying McNamara.
- Look back on the 2021 team without minimizing McNamara’s contribution.
- Instead of focusing on McNamara’s physical limitations, admire what he accomplished in spite of them.
Moving on to McCarthy is what’s best for Michigan football right now. But that transition can happen without turning on a player who, quite frankly, deserves lifelong admiration for what he did in 2021.
McNamara doesn’t possess raw talent that automatically endears him to fans. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a captain, a champion, and a Michigan football legend.
It wouldn’t hurt the fan base to start treating him like it.