J.J. McCarthy shines as backup QB in Michigan football's 51-7 blowout of Colorado State
The turning point in Saturday’s game between Michigan football and Colorado State was not the fumble-return touchdown by cornerback DJ Turner that gave the Wolverines an insurmountable 30-point lead early in the third quarter. Nor was it the 61-yard touchdown catch by wideout Roman Wilson to open U-M’s scoring in an eventual blowout.
The real turning point involved the competition between quarterback Cade McNamara and J.J. McCarthy, which will be scrutinized daily between now and Sept. 24's Big Ten opener against Maryland — if not longer. And that turning point was a 20-yard touchdown run by McCarthy after McNamara had already been pulled.
With the game already won, McCarthy pulled the ball from the belly of a Michigan running back midway through the quarter and bolted down the sideline for the kind of score showcasing the element he brings that McNamara can’t match. A crowd of more than 109,000 exulted when McCarthy juked defensive back Angel King in the open field and bounded into the end zone with ease.
"He was electric when he got in," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "No question about that."
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The final score — Michigan 51, Colorado State 7 — reflected an unflinching beating in what was a blowout at best and a laughingstock at worst. Tailbacks Blake Corum (13 carries, 76 yards, one touchdown) and Donovan Edwards (12 carries, 64 yards, one TD) spearheaded an offense that finished with more yards rushing (234) than passing (206) as the Rams offered little resistance beyond the opening possession. McNamara completed nine of 18 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown in less than three quarters of action.
New defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s unit overwhelmed a CSU offense led by a quarterback making the first start of his career in Clay Millen (16-for-20 for 137 yards with one TD and one interception) and a left tackle who had never played a snap. The Wolverines generated seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss while creating two takeaways: an interception by safety Rod Moore and a fumble recovery by DJ Turner, who scampered 45 yards for a score.
Disappointing effort from McNamara
Based on the first three quarters at Michigan Stadium, where the Wolverines were never threatened by a hapless Colorado State squad debuting its new head coach, the fans clamoring for McCarthy to win the quarterback competition will double down.
For months, McNamara had spoken forcefully and confidently about his place on Michigan’s roster. He told reporters the team was his after leading the Wolverines to their first Big Ten title in 17 years and their first-ever trip to the College Football Playoff. He raved about an offseason of development that sharpened his mechanics, that brought his accuracy to levels unseen the last two years. His rhetoric after being elected captain in a players-only vote was that of someone who assumed the honor secured his position.
Then came Saturday afternoon, the first game of Harbaugh’s multi-pronged audition for his dueling quarterbacks, and much of what McNamara professed in the last few months unraveled with a subpar performance. He completed just half his passes in a little more than two quarters of work.
"I would definitely say it’s pretty unusual," McNamara said when asked about the quarterback arrangement. "It was kind of a thing that I wasn’t expecting by the end of camp. I thought I had my best camp. I thought I put myself in a good position, and that was just a decision that coach (Harbaugh) went with."
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The modest statistical output does little to quash concerns carried over from last season, when McNamara endured problems with both his accuracy and red zone efficiency. His command was shaky from the opening possession when the Wolverines went three-and-out following a pair of poor throws toward Cornelius Johnson (one of which was still catchable but dropped). McNamara also had an interception overruled in a replay review when CSU linebacker Jack Howell was deemed to have trapped the ball against the turf.
McNamara’s most explosive play of the afternoon was a 61-yard touchdown pass to Wilson in which the wideout caught the ball near the line of scrimmage and gained the rest of the yards himself. Removing that from McNamara's numbers would leave him 8-for-17 for 75 yards with zero touchdowns.
Michigan’s red zone numbers were again concerning, continuing a trend that hamstrung the Wolverines for significant portions of last season. The Wolverines began four-for-four in the red zone under McNamara’s direction, but three of those scores were field goals from kicker Jake Moody. Those aren’t the numbers Harbaugh and co-offensive coordinators Sherrone Moore and Matt Weiss are seeking.
"I missed a couple targets," McNamara said. "We had a couple drops. I don’t know. It looked like a first game, I felt like, on the offensive side of the ball. So we are definitely going to clean that up, and I’m going to be a part of that."
Injury problems along the offensive line
Six days ago, during his season-opening news conference, Harbaugh raved about the Wolverines' health. There were a few players with bumps and bruises, he said, but the only player in danger of missing Saturday was inside linebacker Nikhai Hill-Green, who was recovering from a soft-tissue injury.
But something changed during the final few days of preparation, and starting left tackle Ryan Hayes was nowhere to be found when the Wolverines took the field for pregame warmups. Instead, utility lineman Karsen Barnhart — a key backup at every position but center — was part of the first-string offensive line alongside left tackle Trevor Keegan.
The situation worsened late in the first quarter when Barnhart (ankle) limped off the field following a short run by Corum. Barnhart, who logged 262 snaps last season at left tackle (64), left guard (173) and right guard (25) was evaluated in the medical tent and reportedly cleared to return, according to the U-M radio broadcast.
The coaching staff appeared content to err on the side of caution, shifting Keegan to left tackle and using former four-star prospect Giovanni El-Hadi at left guard. Harbaugh said Hayes has a chance to return next week against Hawaii but was uncertain about the nature of Barnhart's injury.
"Karsen Barnhart, from Paw Paw, Michigan, tough as a $2 steak," Harbaugh said. "I would not count him out for next week’s ball game."
New faces off the edge
Little definitive will be gleaned about Michigan’s new crop of edge rushers over the next few weeks facing a trio of nonconference opponents who might combine for fewer wins than the Wolverines in 2022. And on Saturday, when Minter’s group created more sacks and tackles for loss (18) than completions allowed (16), the victimized offensive line included a left tackle who had never played a snap in college.
Nonetheless, there were flickers of potential from junior Braiden McGregor, the former four-star prospect from Port Huron whose first few seasons in Ann Arbor were derailed by injury, and a pair of explosive newcomers in true freshman Derrick Moore and high-profile graduate transfer Eyabi Anoma. The trio was instrumental in harassing Millen, who repeatedly escaped the pocket to scramble.
"We had eight guys rotating at one point," edge rusher Mike Morris said, "and everybody ate. I feel like we bring a lot of versatility and depth to each and every game."
A speed rush from McGregor, whose physical traits (6-6, 261 pounds) have drawn comparisons to Aidan Hutchinson, forced Millen to climb the pocket and overthrow a pass that was intercepted by safety Rod Moore in the first quarter. Michigan kicked a field goal four plays later to take a 10-0 lead.
Moore and Anoma combined to snuff out a drive in the second quarter with pressures on consecutive snaps. The former, who was one of the highest-rated players in Harbaugh’s 2022 recruiting class, shoved left tackle Brian Crespo-Jaquez aside and leveled Millen to force an incompletion on second down. The latter, who was expelled from Alabama and kicked off the team at Houston earlier in his checkered career, romped through a double team by speeding past the right tackle and bull-rushing the tailback for a sack that forced a punt.
"(Anoma) is a phenomenal player," inside linebacker Junior Colson said. "He’s very smart. He learned the playbook very, very quickly and I think he’s going to get more and more snaps as the season goes on because he’s a dominant player."
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