All season, the No. 2 Michigan football team insisted its passing game was close to clicking. Despite week after week of lackluster performances, and loud external criticism, the Wolverines held steadfast in their belief the passing game worked. Even after the Illinois game, where sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy struggled to connect with receivers, he remained positive about his team’s outlook.
“Everything’s a work in progress,” McCarthy said following the game. “Obviously, we have so high expectations for us as an offense, especially in the passing game.”
But against Ohio State, McCarthy flipped the script. He connected on multiple deep touchdowns, finally making good on the team’s promises about the passing game’s potential.
While the passing game was finally clicked, Michigan has yet to display it consistently — which beckons an obvious question. Was the performance against the Buckeyes a flash in the pan, or can the Wolverines sustain that success?
Michigan co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss certainly thinks it’s the latter — that Ohio State was just the tip of the iceberg.
“We had a lot of great stuff ready to go,” Weiss said Wednesday. “We were ready for everything, for overtime, for a two-point shootout, whatever came up. As it turned out, the big plays made it so we didn’t really need to use a lot of the stuff we had saved up that was ready. Really a lot of the big plays we hit were based on day one training camp stuff.”
The Wolverines flipped the momentum of last week’s game on back-to-back touchdown passes to senior wide receiver Cornelius Johnson, going for 69 and 75 yards, respectively. The McCarthy-to-Johnson connection exploited the Buckeyes overcommitment to the running game and was a necessary spark for the Michigan offense given the uncertainty it faced with the health of its backfield.
Those plays were a byproduct of a resilient commitment to hitting the deep ball in practice. It was no surprise to Weiss when McCarthy finally made good on those throws in the game.
“All year in the quarterback room, anytime something bad happened we’d always look at it and just say, ’Man, that was good, yeah, that’s great.’ ” Weiss said. “Because especially with a player like (McCarthy), good players don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Weiss recalled McCarthy’s performance against Rutgers, notably when he overthrew sophomore receiver Andrel Anthony as Anthony was streaking wide open across the middle of the field. In the second quarter against the Buckeyes, when Johnson shook his defender and broke open on a deep route over the middle, McCarthy indeed did not make the same mistake.
Now, McCarthy will look to replicate that success against Purdue. The Boilermakers passing defense ranks fifth-worst in the Big Ten, allowing 218 passing yards per game. While the matchup may look enticing on paper, McCarthy previously struggled to produce against other bottom dwellers in that statistic such as Michigan State and Nebraska. He will have to display the same patience and timing to keep the passing game rolling against a Purdue defense that doesn’t make many egregious mistakes.
“Purdue’s defense is really sound,” Weiss said. “They’re not going to have any coverage busts or turn anybody loose. There’s none of that on tape. They all know what they’re doing, they’re in the right spot. You can tell that they’re well coached.”
Throughout the year, the Wolverines compensated for their passing ineptitude with a thunderous running game and stout defense. Against the Buckeyes, though, who were by far the best team Michigan had faced, it needed the passing game to rise to the occasion to get the win — and McCarthy and the Wolverines did just that.
How well they connect on deep balls in their encore performance, though, will be much more telling for Michigan’s chances in the College Football Playoff.
The Wolverines overcame passing mistakes against inferior competition all season, but they can’t afford to look rocky against the Boilermakers. With nothing but elite teams standing in the way of Michigan’s path to a championship, the time for mistakes is over.