JJ McCarthy may be on his way to becoming something special, but the Michigan sophomore quarterback isn’t quite there yet.

We know this because Jim Harbaugh has rarely asked him to be anything more than a game manager this season. McCarthy is, in essence, an upgraded and more efficient model of Cade McNamara. (And, obviously, a model with much better wheels — McCarthy leads all B1G quarterbacks with 195 rushing yards.)

McCarthy is second in the Big Ten with a 69% completion percentage and 157.6 passer rating, but just 12th in passing attempts.

There is a good reason for that, of course.

There isn’t much incentive to pass if nobody can stop your running game, and that’s usually the case for a rushing offense that’s 7th nationally in yards per carry. Furthermore, there’s little reason to put it in the air all that much when you’re up a couple scores or more in the second half, which Michigan usually is.

But when Michigan does throw the ball, it’s doing so in very conservative fashion. McCarthy is rarely asked to pass against man-to-man coverage.

Since being named the Wolverines’ starter in Week 3, McCarthy is 26-of-63 (41.3%) for 349 yards (5.5 YPA) against man coverage. That equates to just 29.5% of his overall pass attempts. (All stats are per weekly data compiled by ESPN’s Bill Connelly.)

JJ McCarthy vs. man coverage

  • Nebraska: 1 of 8, 29 yards
  • Rutgers: 4 of 9, 37 yards
  • Michigan State: 5 of 10, 58 yards
  • Penn State: 2 of 5, 19 yards
  • Indiana: 6 of 15, 77 yards
  • Iowa: 5 of 9, 78 yards
  • Maryland: 1 of 3, 13 yards
  • UConn: 2 of 4, 38 yards

If all of that is any indicator, this week’s game against Illinois is poised to be the greatest challenge McCarthy and Michigan’s offense face this season.

Why the Illini are built to beat Michigan

In his first year at Illinois, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters has turned the Fighting Illini into one of college football’s most formidable units.

Illinois is third in scoring defense (12.5 ppg), fifth in run defense (3.01 ypc) and tied for second in pass defense (5.4 ypa). The Illini are also tied for the national lead with 17 interceptions.

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And Illinois is doing those things because Walters isn’t afraid to let his secondary play aggressive man coverage against opposing receivers.

Here’s the breakdown of Illinois’ pass coverage against opponents for whom data is available:

  • Purdue: 30 attempts vs. man/6 attempts vs. zone
  • Michigan State: 18 vs. man/3 vs. zone
  • Nebraska: 16 vs. man/3 vs. zone
  • Minnesota: 16 vs. man/0 vs. zone
  • Iowa: 26 vs. man/2 vs. zone
  • Wisconsin: 22 vs. man/7 vs. zone
  • Virginia: 21 vs. man/11 vs. zone
  • Indiana: 36 vs. man/12 vs. zone

Purdue and Michigan State had more success throwing the ball against the Illini than anyone else this season, which in part explains the Illini’s 2-game skid. The Spartans and Boilermakers are the only opponents to complete more than 60% of their passes against the Illini.

But both of those teams also have some unique circumstances — a veteran quarterback whose favorite target has played with him since youth football. (Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed for Michigan State, Aidan O’Connell and Charlie Jones for Purdue.)

Will a young quarterback like McCarthy be up to the task of stressing the Illinois secondary?

Perhaps he won’t need to — that’s how unstoppable a force the Wolverines have been on the ground. Iowa and Indiana are the only teams to even do an adequate job against Michigan on the ground, which in this case translates to fewer than 175 rushing yards.

Wyoming, which rushed for 182 yards in the season opener, remains the only team that has gained more than 150 rushing yards against the Illini.

But even if Illinois can make that trend continue against Michigan, the question is whether the Illini offense can do enough to win.

Can the Illini Chase down a win?

So much for Illinois hinges on the health of running back Chase Brown, who went down with an apparent ankle injury near the end of last week’s 31-24 loss to Purdue. Brown has accounted for 37% of Illinois’ yardage this season.

As a point of comparison, Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III — the Big Ten’s 2021 version of a 1-man wrecking crew — accounted for 26.1% of the Spartans’ total yards. Even Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim, who carries a similar workload as Brown, has accumulated a comparatively light 28.7% of the Gophers’ total yards this season.

No player in the Big Ten means more to his offense. So in order to have a modicum of a chance at Michigan, the Illini need Brown on the field.

Even then, it may not be enough. Opponents are averaging 72.7 rushing yards per game and 2.6 yards per carry against the Wolverines.

Penn State came closest to making something work on the ground against Michigan — an average of 5.1 yards per carry. But as Michigan pulled away early in the fourth quarter, that was unsustainable.

In order to spring the upset, Illinois absolutely must get in front early and shorten the game as much as possible. The Illini, who are third in the B1G in time of possession, are well-versed in that subject.

But Michigan, naturally, is one of the 2 teams doing better than Illinois in that category. The Illini would need to beat Michigan at its own game.

Illinois’ intangible advantage

Perhaps the only thing clearly favoring Illinois heading into this matchup is the intangible of want-to.

After squandering back-to-back chances to wrap up the Big Ten West, the Illini have placed themselves in the unenviable position of needing to beat Michigan. This promises to be a brutally physical game with a few plays going beyond the whistle.

Michigan, on the other hand, finds itself in the classic trap position. Ohio State looms next week, and already the talk in Ann Arbor is fixated on the matchup with the Buckeyes.

If this were Northwestern or Indiana, Michigan could get away with peeking ahead. But Illinois has too good a blueprint for beating the Wolverines to allow that to happen.

Jim Harbaugh has praised his team’s mental toughness all season. And in that regard, Illinois may provide the ultimate test on the eve of The Game.