Hickey: Finally, Michigan has the quarterback edge on Ohio State. Or does it?
Quick: Name the last Michigan quarterback to throw for more yards and touchdowns in a season than his Ohio State counterpart.
It was Jake Rudock in 2015. He was 4th in the B1G in touchdowns (20) and passing yards (3,017). And the distinction comes with an asterisk.
A year after using 3 different quarterbacks on the path to a national championship in 2014, the Buckeyes split time between JT Barrett and Cardale Jones in 2015. The Buckeyes also had a horse in the backfield named Ezekiel Elliott who rushed for 1,821 yards.
So while the Wolverines had the more productive quarterback, the reality is the Buckeyes had 2 better quarterbacks.
You have to dig a bit deeper to find the last time Michigan had the superior signal-caller in this rivalry.
In all likelihood, it’s 2011.
Braxton Miller was a freshman at Ohio State and junior Denard Robinson led Michigan with 20 touchdown passes and 16 touchdown runs. But Robinson was also picked off a league-leading 15 times, so even that isn’t a slam dunk.
Drew Henne led the Big Ten in touchdown passes in 2005, but Troy Smith outdistanced him in yards per attempt (9.6 to 6.6) and completion percentage (62.9% to 58.4%). And Smith left Henne completely in the dust the next year, winning the Heisman Trophy.
That means one could feasibly go back to 2004 to give the Wolverines a definitive edge. Henne was clearly better than Justin Zwick, who was eventually replaced by a freshman Smith.
Point is, no matter how you slice it, it’s been a long time since Michigan went into a season with a quarterback edge over Ohio State.
And now it appears the drought is finally over.
JJ McCarthy will likely be the first team quarterback on the preseason all-Big Ten team. Kyle McCord is the favorite to be Ohio State’s quarterback, but the competition with Devin Brown will carry into training camp.
Maybe. But maybe not.
JJ McCarthy: The unfinished product
Based on the body of work, there’s many reasons to be optimistic about McCarthy’s ascendance this season.
He’s the returning league leader in touchdowns (22) and yards per attempt (8.4). By the end of the season, Jim Harbaugh clearly trusted McCarthy to attempt throws that might have come with a stern talking-to earlier in the season.
McCarthy is not a finished product, though. If he’s going to be the Big Ten’s best quarterback this season, improvement is mandatory.
In Michigan’s 4 November games, McCarthy completed just 50% of his passes (51 of 102), averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. But he also kept the ball out of trouble, throwing for 7 touchdowns without an interception.
His best performance was against Ohio State, which is all any Michigan fan can ever ask of their quarterback.
Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Knowles dared McCarthy to be great with cartoonishly aggressive coverage. McCarthy only completed half of his throws, but those completions were huge — 12 of them for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Against Purdue and TCU, McCarthy flashed more big-play potential, averaging 9.9 yards per attempt. He also completed 60.8% of his throws (31-of-51). But McCarthy also increased his number of completions to opponents, throwing 3 interceptions against 5 touchdowns.
There are enough warts that his progression is not guaranteed, even if it is expected.
Kyle McCord: The unknown product
As the kids are saying, Kyle McCord is a vibe.
Or at least I’m told that’s what the kids are saying.
There isn’t much actual body of work to go on with McCord, which is a thing that happens when you are CJ Stroud’s backup. The majority of evidence was produced in a 2021 start against Akron. McCord was 13-of-18 for 319 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception against the lowly Zips.
Circumstantially, however, there’s plenty of reason to believe in McCord.
For starters, he’s poised to be an Ohio State starter. Buckeyes quarterbacks have led the B1G in passing and touchdowns in each of Ryan Day’s 4 seasons.
But the way Day has prepared McCord for the role is what really waves a scarlet-and-gray flag.
In 2021, the Buckeyes had 3 freshman quarterbacks. Stroud and Jack Miller were redshirts, while McCord was a true freshman.
Miller is the player who transferred out while McCord stuck around to back up Stroud in 2022.
Then there’s this offseason.
Programs like Alabama and Notre Dame scrambled to find quarterbacks in the transfer portal. Day barely lifted a finger.
Ohio State did bring in Oregon State’s Tristan Gebbia, but strictly as veteran depth for a presumed third-string role. Clearly, Day is quite comfortable with McCord or Brown, a redshirt freshman, taking over for Stroud.
He’s seen enough in practice.
Given Day’s eye for quarterback play, that seems like pretty trustworthy judgement.
It doesn’t hurt that McCord — or Brown — has the benefit of working with the best receiving corps in the country.
Even if McCarthy is the better quarterback early the season, it might not look like it. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka are capable of making an average quarterback look great. And a good quarterback look magnificent.
Does it even matter who is better?
For recruitment sake, having the Big Ten’s best quarterback in 2023 would be massive for Michigan. Harbaugh would finally break Day’s hegemony over the position.
But it’s mostly a bragging right. Both teams are so sound across the board that quarterback is far from the only position that will determine the outcome in November.
Michigan is still a run-first team behind Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards. Stroud, the No. 2 pick in the NFL Draft, was a better quarterback than Cade McNamara and McCarthy. But he still went 0-2 against them.
Michigan fans will gladly watch McCord develop into the Big Ten’s top passer if it comes with a third-straight win over the Buckeyes. And Ohio State fans likely won’t have a problem if McCord turns out to be a game manager if it means beating Michigan in the Big House on Thanksgiving weekend.