ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh says he can turn water into wine. Mazi Smith says he can beat defenses “every which way.”
This week, defensive back Mike Sainristil even dubbed him “The Miracle boy.”
No, Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy is not a character from the Bible. He actually ranks 10th among Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards per game (177.5). But you’d never know it from listening to the Wolverines talk about him.
“He goes out there and makes it happen,” Sainristil said Monday, expanding on the Miracle Boy moniker. “That’s just who he is – extending plays if he has to, getting the ball to receivers, picking up fumbles, rolling out and still completing a pass or getting sacked and throwing it up to the running back and completing it – that’s just who he is.”
It’s true that McCarthy has performed all those feats this season, and he’s earned the praise for his playmaking moxy. But if UM is without one or both of Blake Corum or Donovan Edwards on Saturday, or if Ohio State turns The Game into The Shootout, it’s fair to wonder: Can McCarthy keep up?
The Wolverines thought “yes” when they promoted him over former starter Cade McNamara earlier this season. When Harbaugh announced the decision in September, he compared Michigan’s quarterback competition to the one he managed between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick with the San Francisco 49ers. Smith and McNamara were the safe, dependable options. Both won games by managing them. Kaepernick and McCarthy raised the offense’s ceiling with stronger arms and quicker feet.
Here’s the catch: Michigan’s passing attack was more explosive last season with McNamara at quarterback. Through 11 games, the Wolverines have only completed 12 passes that gained 30 or more yards – about 1 per game, which ranks 99th out of 131 teams. Through 14 games last year, UM completed 24 such passes in 14 games (1.7 per game), which ranked 30th.
“They hit (big pass plays) in practice,” Sainristil said. “They’ve hit a few on me. I don’t think they’re far, it’s just the little things.”
The little things can be fixed. And to be fair, UM’s run game has already produced more explosive plays this season – 26 plays of 20-plus yards compared to 24 last. McCarthy deserves credit for making defenses account for his athleticism.
Besides, Michigan’s praise for him is often based on intangible qualities like poise and leadership.
Earlier this month, Harbaugh dubbed McCarthy an “Ice Man” like legendary tennis player Bjorn Borg, who was famous for his composure under pressure. Senior tackle Ryan Hayes said this week that he tries to encourage McCarthy during games, “but I don’t think he really needs anyone talking to him,” Hayes continued. “I think he just has that about him. Some people have that and he has it.”
How often has that cool demeanor been tested, though? Michigan has trailed just four times this season, and it’s never fallen behind by more than one possession. McCarthy has only attempted 30 passes twice this season, and he’s cracked 250 yards once – when he threw for 304 against Indiana, which has allowed 45 more pass yards per game than any other Big Ten defense.
Hayes said he has “complete confidence” in McCarthy running a pass-heavy game plan. Smith says McCarthy looks the part of “QB1″ in practice. And Harbaugh is so confident in his quarterback that his only advice for McCarthy this week was “have at it.”
“Do you,” McCarthy said Tuesday, interpreting that advice. “... What I did to get me here, I’m gonna do that on Saturday, for sure.”
That confidence will serve him well. But is it enough to succeed against his toughest opponent to date?
What if the Buckeyes pull ahead 14-0? What if UM’s run game sputters without (or even with) Corum and Edwards, forcing McCarthy to throw more?
Will Miracle Boy have an answer then?
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