INDIANAPOLIS — J.J. McCarthy’s patented smile seemed to peak just a little bit higher Saturday night.
The sophomore quarterback had every reason for his glee: maize and blue confetti blanketed the field at Lucas Oil Stadium, the No. 2 Michigan football team won its second-straight Big Ten title and McCarthy led his team under center to the moment of glory, hoisting the conference trophy once more.
His own stat-line — 11-for-17 for 161 yards and three touchdowns — displays the contribution McCarthy made to the 43-22 win over Purdue. Turn on the tape, and it gets even more impressive; scrambling throws across his body and frozen-ropes filled up the 11 completions, sending Michigan fans into stupor and making Boilermaker-faithful drop their jaws in disbelief.
The golden boy was finally golden.
The performance spoke for itself. Nobody in the postgame press conference asked McCarthy about how he felt he played, nobody asked Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh his thoughts on his quarterback’s performance and nobody asked sophomore running back Donovan Edwards how McCarthy’s game helped him succeed on the ground.
It was just expected of McCarthy to do what he did. He’s a player so talented that circus-plays and NFL-caliber throws are the status quo.
But, unlike Saturday, that talent hasn’t always translated to results.
“The journey has definitely been a roller coaster,” McCarthy said Saturday. “Just going back to my injury in the offseason and then obviously the competition with Cade. Cade is a great quarterback. A lot (of) it at the beginning of the year and fall camp was just focused on trying to beat him out.”
That’s nothing to underestimate in McCarthy’s journey.
Cade McNamara, too, is a Big Ten Championship-winning quarterback. The now-Iowa transfer did it all before McCarthy as the Wolverines’ leader and QB1 last season, with McCarthy playing second fiddle. It was McNamara’s poise, his decision-making, his tact that made him a champion.
Even if McCarthy had all the talent in the world, he’d need those McNamara-esque qualities to reach the top.
After his talent won him the job in September, McCarthy’s next task was to prove he had them.
“It was like, ‘OK, now we have games to win,’ ” McCarthy said. “It was just that constant kind of — a bunch of obstacles that just made me improve in every way I possibly can.”
Obstacles they were.
McCarthy often struggled throughout the season. He was never truly bad, but as he showed glimpses of greatness within prolonged streaks of mediocrity, there was much to be desired. Missed deep passes, poor decision making and a risky affinity for contact along with other growing pains filled the narrative more than his high upside.
Still, Harbaugh held the highest praise for his prodigy: comparing McCarthy to himself.
“He’s better than me — but I mean, he reminds me of a young Jimmy Harbaugh,” Harbaugh said after Michigan’s win over Iowa on Oct. 1. “Off he goes, he drops back, and then he runs over to his left, circles back to his right, back to his left, runs it, or throws it, to an open guy. Man, I love it, I just love it.”
McCarthy could always do that — it just wasn’t consistent. He had the ability to lift the Wolverines to a victory on his very own shoulders, but he simply never put a game together and did it.
Until Nov. 26 against then-No.2 Ohio State.
McCarthy threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns, connecting on his deep balls and saving drives with his legs and arm. It was a clinic in quarterbacking. For the latter half of that game, McCarthy wasn’t just a young quarterback with heaps of talent, he was the Wolverines’ leader — a beacon of light ushering them to victory.
In Saturday’s Big Ten Championship Game, McCarthy’s light shined just as bright.
It was a culmination of McCarthy’s journey. He was often flashy and gaudy. At times, he made mistakes — such as attempting to extend a play too long and forcing a ball into coverage, resulting in an interception — a product of his inexperience. By no means was he perfect Saturday, but for the second week in a row the five-star recruit performed exactly as he was billed: great.
On Michigan’s first drive of the game, McCarthy delivered. After a double play-action, McCarthy placed a ball where only freshman tight end Colston Loveland could reach it. Through double coverage, Loveland high-pointed the ball and hauled it in for a touchdown. Later, McCarthy demonstrated his mobility, rolling right to evade the Boilermaker rush, firing in stride across his body to find graduate tight end Luke Schoonmaker, putting the Wolverines up 14-10.
As a result of poised plays like those, just one season after McNamara lifted the Big Ten Championship Game trophy for the first time in program history, McCarthy found a way to lead his team to the title once again.
His journey has been winding, with a plethora of ups and downs. McCarthy spent a year as a backup, an offseason fighting for his chance and a season learning how to lead an offense. He’s done everything he can to become a winner.
Now, on the winningest Michigan football team of all time, that’s just who McCarthy is.