John Niyo: Two QBs Or Not Two QBs, Now Michigan’s Biggest Question | Sports
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla .– It was fun while it lasted. Even if it was a bit awkward at times.
But as Michigan shifts its focus to next season after a 34-11 loss to Georgia in the college football playoff semifinals, things are going to get more uncomfortable.
Starting with the debate over who will start quarterback for the Wolverines in 2022, a question head coach Jim Harbaugh felt compelled to intercept on New Years Eve at the post-press conference. his team’s Orange Bowl game.
“Like I said, we have two great quarterbacks,” Harbaugh said. “We do not apologize for this.”
It shouldn’t either, although with an apology to Michigan’s offensive line, it was one of the best blitz pickups we’ve seen all night from the Wolverines, with Cade McNamara sitting just to Harbaugh’s right on the podium shortly after being benched in favor of freshman JJ McCarthy in the second half of Friday’s loss.
Well, not quite benched, exactly. Harbaugh insisted he took the step almost as a way of self-preservation for the Wolverines, after McNamara, who had only been sacked seven times all season, was quit four out of 25 times. drop out and took several more hits while trying to escape Georgia. dominant defensive front and blitz linebackers.
“I felt we just weren’t – the protection just wasn’t as good as it should have been,” Harbaugh later explained. “JJ gave us a better chance to escape it, dodge it and run.”
Okay, but there won’t be any avoidance – or escape – from what comes next, and Harbaugh and his quarterbacks surely know that. Everyone is doing it, frankly. And after an SEC powerhouse turned another CFP semifinal into a rout on Friday night, that was all the ABC broadcast team had to talk about besides the prospect of a Georgia-Alabama rematch next week in Indianapolis.
The battle is looming
Can McNamara really hold onto the starting position next season like he did this fall when he led Michigan to their first Big Ten title since 2004? Or will it be time, as most of us expect, for McCarthy – the promising five-star rookie with all that tantalizing athletic potential – to take the lead? And however this battle builds up and unfolds, in this new era of free agency with the transfer portal in college football, will the two decide to stay?
“We asked Josh Gattis about it and he was like, ‘I appreciate him right now. It’s working for us right now, “” analyst Kirk Herbstreit said in Friday’s game. “But looking down the road, it’s going to be one hell of a battle between these two.”
That said, if this was an uphill battle for McCarthy in 2021, as a true 18-year-old freshman getting his feet wet as a college quarterback, it should be a playing field for a lot. more equal this spring. One his talent could easily tip as Michigan try to fend him off as the Big Ten champions, presumably with a more dynamic attack.
“Because with his skills, it opens up the playbook a lot more,” Herbstreit added. “It’s nothing against Cade McNamara. Anyone who’s watched Michigan this year has to respect the job they’ve done as a leader and be effective and complement their racing game. He always seemed to make the right decision. with the passing game. So that’s great. But with McCarthy, you can’t deny his ability as a guy who can run and throw. “
Those who stayed to watch the second half of Friday’s game got another in-depth look at that ability. And while neither quarter finished with an impressive number of passes – McNamara had 11 of 19 passes for 106 yards and a pair of interceptions while McCarthy had 7 of 17 passes for 131 yards and the lone touchdown. from Michigan – it wasn’t hard to imagine. some of those possibilities Herbstreit was talking about.
McCarthy rushed multiple times to escape a pass rush that no longer had to worry about Michigan’s running game, finishing with 23 yards on five carries. He also showed that well-publicized arm talent, especially on a third string to Erick All who split three Georgian defenders.
We’ve seen glimpses of it all season, really, although Harbaugh cleverly stayed with McNamara as a starter until the Spring Ball and into the Fall. And like McNamara, who often makes comparisons to his head coach due to his fiery competitiveness, proved him right by leading the Michigan offense with a steady hand and a shrewd head.
Despite all the flak McNamara has taken this season, especially in September when Harbaugh and Gattis called games in which the passing attack seemed like an afterthought, he never really flinched.
And while we only got a small sample of some of the freshman mistakes McCarthy made on the training ground – those breakaways in the Michigan State game, in particular – we did. saw countless examples of why McCarthy had earned the trust of coaches. Manage the games, do all the right pre-instant reads, and beat the blitzes over and over again.
Yet at the same time, we also saw his limits, just like we did in the Orange Bowl, with slaps on the line of scrimmage and pocket collapsing on him. And as impressive as Michigan’s ground game is this season, you don’t have to imagine how much better it could be with McCarthy giving opposing defenses yet another passing conflict with his option ability. You don’t have to, as the coaching staff has shown you so much with how they got freshmen in and out of the game for a game or two at a time. They knew what was missing and they knew where they couldn’t find it.
The question going forward is how better prepared McCarthy will be to do it from start to finish with a full year under his belt and an attack that could be tailor-made for him. With Donovan Edwards and Blake Corum in the backfield and a deep receiving body returning, it will be less pitch and pound than we’ve seen with Hassan Haskins carrying the load this season.
Still, if we’ve learned anything about McNamara this season, it’s that he won’t back down from a challenge and he won’t hesitate to protect his territory. At the same time, however, it’s pretty clear that McCarthy is a true blue rookie who’s going nowhere, and he’s already a leader among the Wolverines’ young corps. He was the one who led those late-night workouts at Michigan’s indoor training ground when the team returned to Ann Arbor after road trips this fall. And he’s the one everyone at Schembechler Hall expects to be the starter at some point, despite McNamara – a red shirt sophomore this season – technically still has three years of eligibility.
Obviously, McCarthy will have to learn to pull something off his fastball in certain situations. He will have to learn to better protect himself – and football – when it comes out of his pocket too. Ditto to protect his receivers on occasion, as we have seen a few times in the second half against Georgia. Like that wheel road he threw at Corum only to see him get staggered by the Bulldogs’ Chaz Chambliss, who was kicked out for aiming the shot.
But he’ll also have to keep doing what he did in brief first-year appearances. Including at the end of Friday’s loss, when in the very next game after Corum turned on, McCarthy backed off, faked a pump to help sell Andrel Anthony’s double hit on the sideline. Georgia then hit a 35-yard touchdown pass to give the Wolverines one final highlight to cap off a busy season.
We should expect to see more in 2022. But how many and how soon? In college football, it’s never too early to ask yourself that question.
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