Bruner’s Beat: Is J.J. McCarthy Really the Answer for Michigan?

- Bruner's Beat

by Evan Bruner

2022 went out in style, thanks to two thoroughly entertaining playoff games. The contests, which featured TCU taking down Big Ten Champion Michigan and top-ranked Georgia clawing out a victory against Ohio State, were decided by one score and came down to the final seconds. For college football fans, these games were everything you could hope for: excitement and drama from start to finish.

But when narrowing the scope, there were some individual performances that are worth dissecting, most notably, Michigan Wolverines quarterback J.J. McCarthy. After stampeding through the Big Ten en route to a 13-0 record, the Wolverines saw their fortunes change, falling to the TCU Horned Frogs 51-45. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a game that can be pinned on the quarterback. Scoring 45 points in a national semi-final is no easy feat. However, McCarthy’s effort reiterated many of the prior concerns regarding Michigan’s offense.

Following Michigan’s embarrassing defeat to the eventual national champion Georgia Bulldogs in last year’s playoff, many fans called for the Wolverines to make a change at quarterback. Although Cade McNamara put together a solid season, it was widely believed then freshman J.J. McCarthy possessed greater talent, thus giving the Wolverines a higher ceiling. 

This sentiment was largely due to McCarthy’s recruiting status, as he was one of the most sought-after quarterback prospects in high school, and McCarthy certainly offers advantages over McNamara. He’s a much better athlete, which allows him to extend plays with his feet, and he’s very fluid inside the pocket, permitting him to play inside and outside of structure. 

While there are conspicuous differences in both style and skill between the two, McCarthy has served a very similar function in the offense as his predecessor. Michigan, a run-first team, primarily relied on him to make short, high-percentage passes this season. Although McCarthy filled this role quite well overall, completing 64.6 percent of his passes and maintaining a 4.5 TD/INT ratio, the scheme was highly dependent on the run game. The Wolverines’ high-octane rushing attack would give McCarthy favorable down and distances, which allowed him to get away with making relatively easy throws. 

Michigan’s passing game in 2022 could be described as a “layups and threes” offense. The passing concepts mainly consisted of dump-offs and short developing routes (layups) with the occasional shot downfield (threes). This type of offense is gaining credence in the football realm. One of the best examples of this is what the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers in his two most recent MVP seasons. Green Bay would lull the defense to sleep with underneath pass patterns. Then, once the defense adjusted and called plays designed to stop these concepts, the Packers would attack vertically, leading to a highly efficient and deadly passing attack. This approach is seen as the perfect balance for the modern pass game. It’s more explosive than the traditional west coast offense but less risky than most air-raid attacks.

Michigan’s passing offense was unable to keep the same level of efficacy, mainly because of McCarthy’s shaky deep accuracy. Without being able to consistently hit receivers downfield, the layups and threes offense is just the layups offense. If there isn’t an imminent threat of the deep ball, defenses can easily key in on the shorter passes. The Wolverines were able to bypass this issue for most of the season with their run game.

However, small weaknesses can become fatal flaws on the biggest stage. In a low-usage role, McCarthy can be described as precise, decisive, and accurate. But when thrust into a higher volume situation, those three characteristics dissipate. McCarthy’s 34 pass attempts on New Year’s Eve were nearly a career high. He was able to generate explosive plays as a passer, averaging 10 yards an attempt and scoring three total touchdowns. But the big plays came at the expense of his consistency. McCarthy had multiple ugly interceptions and errant passes and fumbled the snap on his team’s final offensive play. 

There’s plenty to extrapolate from this game, but what seems to stick out the most is that McCarthy’s play style isn’t sustainable against better opponents. Even against Ohio State, a game Michigan won handily, he only completed 50% of his passes, and 75 of his 263 passing yards came on a busted coverage. Michigan’s offense wants McCarthy to be a conservative facilitator that merely takes what the defense gives him, but against better teams, he becomes a boom-or-bust gunslinger. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either style, but the rigid dichotomy of the two raises many questions about the identities of both McCarthy and Michigan. 

Despite the Wolverine fanbase clamoring for McCarthy to start this season, Michigan’s 2022 season was nearly identical to 2021. They have the Big Ten’s number, including bitter rival Ohio State, but they don’t appear to be as dynamic offensively as other playoff teams.  The million-dollar question is whether McCarthy can improve his deep accuracy. An improved deep ball would completely change the complexion of the Wolverines’ offense. This is especially crucial, considering star running back Blake Corum will likely declare for the upcoming draft.

It’s also worth wondering what Michigan could do schematically to accommodate McCarthy. It’s easy to understand why they run the ball so frequently, but this current offense appears to have limitations. Although it’s arguable these limitations could at least be partially attributed to personnel, it’s become increasingly evident changes need to be made if Michigan wants to capture the elusive national title. Regardless, McCarthy’s Fiesta Bowl performance leaves Michigan fans with far more questions than answers.

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