SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The moment remains ingrained in the minds of anyone who saw it happen live.
Few folks did, and those who were still in the stadium celebrating probably weren’t paying much attention.
Last December, after Michigan ended up on the wrong end of a lopsided game against Georgia in the College Football Playoff semifinal, there stood JJ McCarthy and a handful of teammates on the field in south Florida. Most of the Wolverines’ players had already retreated to the locker room, visibly upset by the crushing end to the season, but McCarthy, running back Donovan Edwards, receiver Andrel Anthony and defensive end Mike Morris opted to stay. They later told reporters they wanted to soak in the moment because, they believed, Michigan would be back.
Nearly 12 months later to the exact date, that’s exactly where McCarthy and Michigan finds itself — getting ready to play No. 3 Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl on Saturday in Glendale, Ariz. (4 p.m., ESPN). Only this time, with McCarthy as the starting quarterback.
“It drove me so much that this victory tonight doesn’t feel like anything,” McCarthy, numb to the success, said earlier this month. The comments came in the moments after Michigan’s victory in the Big Ten championship game, a defining moment that was hard to come by just two years ago. Now, the Wolverines are piling up big-time moment after big-time moment, smashing any semblance of trouble that permeated the program in years prior.
“I mean, back-to-back Big Ten championships is amazing, but just that feeling we had last year, this is just in the way of making sure that feeling never happens again.”
That feeling, McCarthy says, is the agony of defeat. He didn’t lose many games as a star quarterback in high school, where he starred at Nazareth Academy in LaGrange Park, Ill., rising to the five-star status he later put on display nationally at football powerhouse IMG Academy. He didn’t have many down-and-out moments.
In fact, many expected the flashy, 6-foot-3, 196-pound gunslinger to enroll at Michigan and immediately win the starting job. But it didn’t come that easy. An older, more experienced quarterback, Cade McNamara, beat him out for it in 2021 — leaning on a potent rushing attack, stout offensive line and his smarts to lead the Wolverines to an improbable season of firsts. They beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011, won their first Big Ten championship since 2004, and earned their first-ever CFP berth.
Michigan assistant coach Matt Weiss, in charge of the quarterbacks and a co-offensive coordinator, anointed McNamara “legend” status for everything he did.
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“And I don’t say that lightly,” Weiss said. “He was 12-2 as a starter here. He’s in the top 10 of every single-season quarterback record. He was voted all-Big Ten by the coaches, team captain by his peers, won the Big Ten, beat Ohio State.”
McNamara appeared to have a leg up again in the offseason, when McCarthy was limited to help nurse a lingering injury to his shoulder, one that prompted him to shut down all throwing motions until preseason camp. He entered camp as the perceived frontrunner, yet Harbaugh continued to leave the quarterback competition open.
“The journey has definitely been a rollercoaster,” McCarthy said. “A lot of it at the beginning of the year and fall camp was just focused on trying to beat him out. Then once I did, it was like, ‘OK, now we have games to win.'”
It only took two games for the Michigan coaches to decide that McCarthy was the best option going forward; not only for his strong arm and play-making ability, but his mobility and athleticism that usurped anything that McNamara brought to the table.
The move — questionable at the time given McNamara’s captain status, and respect he commanded with teammates — turned out to be a net-positive in the long run. McCarthy, despite another run-heavy offensive attack, completed 65 percent of his throws for 2,376 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He rarely made a mistake, and when he did he bounced back quickly.
“He’s pretty cool, pretty laid back,” says receiver Roman Wilson. “Way too locked in. I don’t know he does it. He’s the most confident, calm, collected guy I’ve seen out there.”
With McCarthy at quarterback, Michigan ripped off a perfect 12-0 regular season, besting its improbable run of a year ago by a game and beating arch rival Ohio State for a second straight year. Only this time, with Blake Corum on the shelf due to injury and backup Donovan Edwards playing through an injury himself, it was McCarthy’s arm and play-making ability that proved to be the difference. For weeks, observers had watched an underwhelming Michigan passing attack try to get it done against inferior opponents with mixed results. Yet against the No. 2 team in the country, it was McCarthy and his unique traits that helped carry the day.
“JJ McCarthy could have been a guy like, ‘I’m JJ McCarthy — I’m a five-star quarterback. I’m not here to hand the ball off,’” Harbaugh, the head coach, said. “Never. He’ll do anything for the team. He’ll block; he’ll run down the field and block for a running back 50 yards down the field. Do anything for the team.”
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It’s that selflessness that has Harbaugh gushing over McCarthy, who showed a next-level sign of maturity following Michigan’s mid-October win over Penn State, when he completed 17 of 24 pass attempts for a paltry 145 pounds and zero touchdowns. It was by far his best game on the stat sheet, unnecessary given Michigan’s big day on the ground, yet he didn’t seem too fazed by it.
In fact, McCarthy advocated for Michigan’s bully style of play.
“You have to have a dominant offense — you have to,” McCarthy told reporters. “You don’t see any Air Raid offense winning national championships. It’s where it’s done — in the trenches — that’s where the battle is won.
“Of course, coach Harbaugh loves that. He’s all about the nitty-gritty way of playing football, the blue-collar way, and I’m just happy to be a part of it. It’s only going to benefit me in the NFL, and it wins ballgames, so I’m all for that.”
The Michigan quarterback has also used his success and friendly demeanor to influence those around him. His JJ For the Kids Foundation, launched by McCarthy with money earned from Name, Image and Likeness endeavors, has now donated more than $30,000 to children’s hospitals across the Big Ten, including CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor. He also has a growing list of teammates joining in on his pregame meditation routine.
Above all else, however, McCarthy has won over his teammates and helped bridge a mid-season quarterback transition that could have gone awry. It’s not easy going from one leader to another without the whole thing blowing up.
“That was a pretty drastic change during the season, because we were so used to Cade’s leadership, (him) being in there and JJ coming in for the special plays,” said starting offensive lineman Trevor Keegan. “I think the coaches did a really good job of handling that. The players did, as well. The offensive line knew that whoever was back there, we were going to block our tails off no matter what.”
They have, and McCarthy has done his part, too, willing Michigan to its first-ever 13-0 start and return trip to the CFP. This time, however, the hope is that the Wolverines aren’t the ones standing around watching the celebration.
“He’s done what he’s supposed to do,” offensive lineman Karsen Barnhart said. “He’s tried to be a leader. Guys follow him. It’s just growing and growing everyday, (and) more guys are following him. It’s great to have him back there, blocking for him. When the pocket collapses, he can make things happen for us. It’s awesome to have him back there, helping us win.”
Read more on Michigan football:
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