Cade McNamara stood in the middle of the locker room, holding a game ball and commanding all the attention of a starting quarterback.
After a four-hour, three-overtime comeback victory, this was his moment and no one else’s. He would make the most of it.
“Let’s fucking build on this shit, boys,” he said, in a video captured on Twitter. “Let’s get it. What happens if we win out, huh? Who’s gonna remember all the fucking games before (this), man?
“We win out, we did our job. We said we were gonna win out. Let’s fucking do it.”
No one else will believe that possible. But all the members of the Michigan football team listening did. And their reaction — mobbing McNamara in celebration — says it louder than anything else.
Because after nearly three-and-a-half games of misery, this was something different. Something to grab onto and hold tight, and hope that the 2020 season could be salvaged, if not in the form of Michigan’s record than at least in the form of its dignity, and its future at quarterback.
McNamara came into Saturday’s game in the middle of the second quarter, staring at a 17-0 deficit. He made that speech after throwing four touchdowns on his way to completing 27-of-36 passes and piloting the Wolverines to a 48-42 triple-overtime win over Rutgers that ran the gamut between bizarre, discouraging and just good enough to make fans believe in a Michigan quarterback yet again. He will start next week.
“Well it felt good,” McNamara said. “Obviously.”
He sat in front of the Zoom camera at 12:30 a.m., wearing frosted tips and an expression of relief. Under his tutelage, Michigan hadn’t just won. It had displayed an offense that consistently functioned the way it was supposed to — not just in fits of starting, stopping and wondering about potential.
That doesn’t fall entirely on the quarterback. Going into halftime, Michigan had accounted for just 77 rushing yards in its last 10 quarters of football; it had 129 in the latter two quarters and three overtimes. McNamara gave credit to that, and to the offensive line, but left little doubt as to his own standing when asked if he should start next week against Penn State.
“Personally I feel like I’ve done enough for me to be put in that position,” he said.
Harbaugh, who made Milton the starter this week after declaring an open competition, agreed.
“He was outstanding,” Harbaugh said. “Really gritty performance. In all ways. Super tough. Executed. Was outstanding. His play was inspiring. Yeah, can’t say enough great things.”
Though Milton started, Harbaugh said he came in with a plan to play both quarterbacks during the game. And after a 5-of-12 start that featured most of his throws looking inaccurate and the offense looking no better than it had in last week’s 49-11 loss to Wisconsin, that plan came to fruition.
Three plays after McNamara came into the game, he had found Cornelius Johnson in the end zone for a 46-yard touchdown after a busted coverage. By the start of the fourth quarter, he had pulled the Wolverines back into the lead with a six-yard slant to Mike Sainristil, to which Ronnie Bell jumped up and down in exultation. In the second overtime, needing a touchdown to keep the game going, he ran into the end zone himself, and in the third, he leaned on that run game to give the Wolverines a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“Just really my role is just to be a distributor,” McNamara said. “Really get the ball in the receiver's hands as fast as I possibly can. Just make sure that we’re running on all cylinders and really what it took for us on that last drive was patience.”
That description — in a lot of ways, one of a game manager — is in a lot of ways, the opposite of what Michigan wanted Milton to be. The coaching staff was enamored with his arm strength and natural ability, and no one who watched him over the first four games will disagree that the talent is special.
But figuring out to harness it was an issue that plagued him. And when McNamara came in, the simple ability to be accurate was enough to propel Michigan’s offense forward. No individual play he made popped off the screen. He made some good throws, largely took what the defense gave him, kept the offense on schedule and got it to the end zone.
It turns out, that’s exactly what Michigan needed.
“I think we got our swagger back a little bit,” McNamara said. “Especially on the offensive side of the ball we had been struggling a little bit. To come out with a win feels good.”