The B1G 10: Will JJ McCarthy make Jim Harbaugh look like a genius -- or a fool -- in The Game?
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
It’s The Game, and that can only mean 1 thing: This is why Jim Harbaugh chose JJ McCarthy as his Michigan quarterback 2 months ago.
And this is where McCarthy makes Harbaugh look like a genius.
Or a fool.
“In my eyes, I don’t think we should be stopped,” McCarthy said, “And I don’t think we’ve reached that yet.”
That, everyone, is the crux of the issue.
The decision to bench Cade McNamara — who is no longer available this season because of knee surgery — for McCarthy can be easily defended. It begins with pure arm talent and athleticism, and ends with 1 of the quarterbacks can get Michigan past the Playoff semifinals. The other can’t.
One is close to maxing out. The other isn’t close to reaching his potential.
But for all the potential with McCarthy, he’s still the guy who hasn’t done it, and you don’t know how he’ll react when placed in need-it, big game/big moment scenarios.
So far, it’s hit-and-miss. McCarthy played well in a testy game against Maryland and was productive and smart against Penn State. But in the 4 games since the rout of Penn State, McCarthy has been mostly average, completing 52 percent of his passes and struggling to complete intermediate and deep throws.
While that’s not debilitating against anyone else, it is against Ohio State and any other game the remainder of the season.
His season numbers are solid (1,952 yards, 14 TDs; 3 rush TDs), and are similar to what McNamara put up in 2021 at this point in the season.
There’s little doubt McCarthy, an elite athlete and former 5-star recruit, stresses defenses differently than McNamara. But at some point, 3rd-and-9 shows up and he’ll have to make a play with his arm.
If it’s anything like the previous 4 games against Ohio State, there will be problems.
“We know it’s our toughest test of the year,” Harbaugh said. “I think we’re going to find we’re made of the right stuff.”
If not, he’s going to hear about making the wrong decision with McCarthy and McNamara.
2. Grind it out
The Michigan offensive philosophy isn’t going to fool anyone: run, run and run some more.
Or as McCarthy says, “Our identity is smash-fest.”
But at what cost to McCarthy’s development?
The fact that Michigan isn’t pushing the ball downfield with McCarthy as much as it wants — or as much as it needs — is the first problem. His arm talent and ability to throw over the top off play-action should be a perfect fit for the run-first offense.
Yet McCarthy’s 7.9 average yards per attempt — solid, not elite — is the exact same number McNamara finished with last season. It’s hard to argue about getting enough reps when you’re averaging 24 attempts a game, but it’s the type of attempts.
Again, the ball isn’t going downfield like it should, both intermediately and deep. The receivers have had problems with drops, and McCarthy has had problems throwing catchable balls.
There were maddening stretches of inefficiency last week against Illinois that are a microcosm of the lack of chemistry in the passing game.
Andrel Anthony, maybe the most talented of the receivers, has caught just 7 passes this season and dropped a deep ball touchdown against Illinois. Running back Isaiah Gash dropped a surefire touchdown pass on a sprint-out throw from McCarthy.
And on the next play, McCarthy missed Colston Loveland on a perfectly executed cross that also would’ve scored. The passing game is so close to big things yet continues to make the same mistakes and slow the potential for growth.
When you’re play-caller Matt Weiss, the decision is fairly easy: If star tailback Blake Corum is going to give you 6 yards per carry on average, why focus on anything else?
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Because this is the game you’ll need it. And for the past 11 games, Michigan should’ve been ramping up the passing game.
Instead of wondering why it’s trending downward over the last month of the season.
3. Run, run, pass; The Epilogue
There’s a school of thought that Michigan has been saving some unique pass game concepts for The Game — and that Weiss and McCarthy will unleash them in the biggest game of the season.
Harbaugh did say last week that Michigan works on Ohio State prep every week of the season. Not one week passes where the Wolverines aren’t doing some form of prep for the Buckeyes.
Could that be passing game work? Absolutely.
But the reality is it’s difficult to rock the boat when you’re winning games and unbeaten, and playing November games to remember while headed toward a return trip to the Playoff. Why fix what isn’t broken?
You do what works to win games.
Running the ball 62 percent of the time will (and has) beat most teams. It won’t beat Ohio State — or potential bigger games down the road — without the ability to force the defense to honor the passing game. Especially if Corum is limited after leaving the Illinois game with a knee injury.
You’re not beating Georgia by running into the teeth of the Bulldogs’ defense, and not beating TCU or USC by getting in a shootout without the ability to stress a defense with the passing game.
Michigan needs to throw the ball with efficiency and hit big plays. It needs McCarthy to make throws in the pocket, and off-schedule. And it needs McCarthy’s legs, and his 4.4 speed, to change the way Ohio State defends the offense.
Because if you take away McCarthy’s legs and speed and ability to stress the defense as a runner, what you’re left with is a near carbon copy of McNamara. At least, based on production.
It was good enough last year in The Game.
It may not be good enough this time around in Columbus.
4. Silent improvement
The Iowa offense is hideous. It has taken ineffective to a new level.
But 3-year starting quarterback Spencer Petras has now gone 105 passes over 5 games without an interception. It should come as no surprise then that Iowa has won its past 4 games.
See how that works, Iowa? Don’t be reckless with the football, win games.
Don’t be reckless with the football, and the entire free football world won’t ask — over and over and over — why Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz A.) hired his son, Brian, as offensive coordinator in the first place, and B.) when will he fire his son, whose offense is the worst among Power 5 teams, and C.) who in their right mind makes a career offensive line coach the team’s quarterbacks coach?
Fair questions, all.
But they’re not as rapid fire at Kirk Ferentz as they were earlier in the season because all Iowa needs is a win at home against Nebraska on Friday to win the Big Ten West Division and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game.
All of that for moving up 1 spot — I swear I’m not making this up — from No. 131 in the nation (or dead last) in total offense to 130th.
5. The Weekly 5
The picks against the spread — special expanded Rivalry Week edition — from our friends at FanDuel.
- Michigan (+7.5) at Ohio State
- Nebraska at Iowa (-10.5)
- Minnesota at Wisconsin (-3)
- Purdue (-11.5) at Indiana
- Illinois (-13.5) at Northwestern
- Michigan State (+18.5) at Penn State
Last week: 3-2.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Penn State OT Olumuyiwa Fashanu.
“A big man who plays with passion and a nasty streak. Long arms, quick feet. Will be a Day 1 starter, and could go as high as the first 10 (overall). I really wanted to see more consistency this season, and he has made a huge improvement in walking to the line and playing each play technically sound.
“He has those big, heavy hands, but one flaw is sometimes he gets a little sloppy with them. That was part of the consistency I wanted to see. He has cleaned it up a lot. He’s a high-ceiling guy. I don’t think we’ve seen anything close to what he can be.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: the bowl projection.
1. Ohio State: Fiesta Bowl Playoff semifinal vs. TCU.
2. Michigan: Rose Bowl vs. Oregon.
3. Penn State: Cotton Bowl vs. UCF.
4. Iowa: Citrus Bowl vs. Tennessee.
5. Wisconsin: ReliaQuest Bowl vs. Ole Miss.
6. Illinois: Music City vs. Kentucky.
7. Purdue: Duke’s Mayo Bowl vs. Florida State.
8. Minnesota: Pinstripe Bowl vs. Pittsburgh.
9. Maryland: Guaranteed Rate Bowl vs. Texas Tech.
10. Michigan State (if eligible): First Responder Bowl vs. Kansas.
11. Nebraska: Has missed 6 straight postseasons.
12. Indiana: last bowl played: 2020.
13. Rutgers: Without a Gator Bowl invite in 2021 as a 5-7 team, would be in the middle of an 8-year no-bowl streak.
14. Northwestern: The worst season at Northwestern since winless 1989 season.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: How much longer does Rutgers give Greg Schiano to work his magic again? — Terry Solano, New York City.
We’re talking about 2 completely different situations. The first time around, Rutgers was the worst program in college football and Schiano could build and grow in relative obscurity in the Big East.
Now Rutgers is in the Big Ten, the most financially strong conference in college sports. Money is pouring in from media rights deals, and there’s no reason winning shouldn’t be a priority.
Like every program, it’s about recruiting and developing players. Now there’s an added bonus: the transfer portal. The one thing coaches have complained about from the jump could eventually be the one thing that saves many of them. The portal allows teams to get better now — not 1 or 2 or more years from now by building with high school recruits.
When the Rutgers administration sees Sonny Dykes take over 5-win TCU and have the Frogs 2 games from reaching the Playoff, you better believe that ratchets up expectations for Schiano. If other schools can do it — even though TCU’s recruiting footprint is much different than that of Rutgers — why can’t Rutgers?
We’re at 3 straight years without a winning record, and a 4th is going to be a problem. Schiano signed an 8-year, $32 million deal in 2019, and has 5 years remaining after this season.
If he is fired without cause at any point in the contract, he is owed 77 percent of the remainder of the deal. For example: if he were fired after this season, he would get 77 percent of $20 million, or $15.4 million.
8. The Game is big at every level, even the passing game. Ohio State is just 1 of 2 league teams (Nebraska) that average more than 8 yards per attempt.
QB CJ Stroud’s 9.7 yards per attempt is No. 1 in the nation, and he’s the standard for the conference — which is well behind the rest of the Power 5 conferences in throwing the ball downfield.
- SEC: 6 of 14 starting quarterbacks averaging more than 8 yards per attempt.
- Pac-12: 5 of 12.
- ACC: 4 of 14.
- Big 12: 2 of 10.
10. Quote to note
Wisconsin interim coach Jim Leonhard: “I like where we’re heading as we get to the end of the season. I think I’ve done a decent job of continuing to push and keep guys motivated. Clarity (on potential permanent job) would help.”