There was a moment postgame in Iowa City where Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh couldn’t stop smiling. The reasoning? JJ McCarthy and his ability to extend plays.

Harbaugh, a quarterback for the Wolverines himself in the 1980s, dominated the competition. He threw for 5,449 yards and 32 touchdowns while completing 62.4% of his throws. He led Michigan to a 36-12-1 record, closing out his tenure in Ann Arbor as of one the best to ever throw the pigskin.

So when Harbaugh gives out compliments to quarterbacks, he knows what he’s talking about.

“There’s nobody that loves [McCarthy’s] game more than I do,” Harbaugh told reporters. He’s better than me, but he reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh. He drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it or throws it to an open guy. Man, I love it. I just love it.” 

McCarthy was far from perfect in the Wolverines’ 27-14 win over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium. Heck, the offense stumbled as a unit on more than one occasion, often seeing drives end in punts instead of points.

That’s fine for now. Iowa is one of the nation’s better defenses. McCarthy didn’t give the Hawkeyes free plays when passing. He didn’t record a turnover for the 4th consecutive game. And while the offensive line did its best to keep McCarthy secure, on plays where pressure was added, the sophomore QB evaded it.

McCarthy checked all the boxes needed to be a viable starter in a conference where one slip-up could mean the end of a season. He completed 18-of-24 passes for 155 yards and a touchdown, looking poised in the pocket and trusting his weapons to do the work.

And sure, there’s a handful of throws McCarthy would likely want back. Of course, Harbaugh isn’t going to hold it against his QB entering Week 6. Last week, Harbaugh affirmed Kinnick Stadium’s reputation as a place “where top-5 teams go to die.”

The Wolverines lived.

McCarthy met expectations, and the team improved to 5-0. Even when the offense stumbled, McCarthy never gave Iowa a chance to capitalize and score. He managed the game, made the right reads to put the offense in position to keep drives alive and delivered strike after strike to open receivers downfield.

The one area where McCarthy will need to improve before facing off against opponents like Penn State and Ohio State is his deep ball accuracy. Last week against Maryland, he went 1-of-8 on passes 20 yards downfield or more. On Saturday, he was 1-of-5, connecting with Andrel Anthony for a gain of 29. McCarthy missed a wide-open Roman Wilson that would have gone for a 30-plus-yard gain.

“He played a really good game,” Harbaugh said of McCarthy. “I dance a real fine line of not taking his special talent and over-coaching it. I do not want him to be a victim of over-coaching. When it’s all said and done, just do you, JJ, play your game. It’s really good. Just protect the ball.”

Last season, Michigan finished 12-2 with a B1G title and College Football Playoff berth. Once facing Georgia in the Orange Bowl, the Wolverines realized the importance of elite quarterback play. Sure, Stetson Bennett will one day be selling insurance in Atlanta while living off NIL royalties and memories of his time in Athens, but with a defense like the Bulldogs’, one is allowed to be average under center.

McCarthy isn’t your run-of-the-mill gunslinger. He can keep drives alive from behind the sticks. He can buy time in the pocket, allowing his receivers to get open downfield after the first look. Once a target has his window, McCarthy can deliver strikes into tight spaces where only his receiver can make the play.

Cade McNamara, last year’s starter, limits the Wolverines’ offense. Perhaps McCarthy expands the playbook. And in a winnable — yet challenging — B1G East, anything to raise the level of play is needed entering October.