The last time Michigan won in Ohio State, J.J. McCarthy wasn’t born yet.
The sophomore quarterback has played in some big games in his career, whether it be high school state championships or his spot moments in the Wolverines’ playoff run last year. But he’s never witnessed anything like a maize and blue win in Columbus — not as a player, not in his lifetime.
Saturday’s game will unequivocally be the biggest start of his young career. A Big Ten title, a playoff berth and accomplishing a feat that no Michigan quarterback since Drew Henson has done are all on the line.
It’s a weighty situation McCarthy is walking into, but Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s advice to his signal caller was simple:
“Have at it,” Harbaugh said Monday.
It’s advice McCarthy is taking to heart.
“The saying that we love around here is just ‘do you,’ ” McCarthy said Tuesday. “I’m gonna do me. What I did to get me here, I’m gonna do that this Saturday.”
How McCarthy reached this point in the season hasn’t gone exactly as planned. Twelve weeks ago against Hawaii, McCarthy showed impressive touch on his deep ball and was named permanent QB1 that night.
When McCarthy was anointed the starter, the Wolverine faithful envisioned Michigan waltzing into Columbus with a dynamic passing attack orchestrated by McCarthy. But the on-field results since Big Ten play began have merited the opposite. McCarthy has just three games with over 200 passing yards and his completion percentage has dipped below 55% the last three weeks.
Concerns have risen about the Wolverines’ lack of a passing game, even as the offense insists it’s close to clicking. That uneasiness is heightened this week because the Wolverines don’t know the status of dynamic runners Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards, who’ve served as the offense’s focal points all year.
As McCarthy prepares to face an uber-talented Ohio State team with revenge on its mind, McCarthy is entering a battlefield — one where the weapon he’s brandishing has failed him to this point. But McCarthy shows a different attitude.
“Everyone’s ready to go,” McCarthy said. “The stars are aligning and it’s finally here — and we couldn’t be more excited.”
Last week, McCarthy didn’t play well by any means, but he did pull a couple miraculous plays to keep Michigan in the game. He found a way to gut out a win against Illinois after facing a fourth quarter deficit. Instead of the struggles, it’s those moments of brilliance that have stuck in Harbaugh’s mind as McCarthy prepares for the Buckeyes.
“It’s pretty cool,” Harbaugh said. “Coming off of a game where you had a fourth-quarter comeback win in the last minute. Game-winning drive. That doesn’t happen to quarterbacks that often and to be in that situation, first time and win it. He’s just got it.”
Last season, the Wolverines followed a run-heavy blueprint and it worked to perfection. They finished every second half drive with a touchdown while only attempting four passes, smashing their way to a victory. This year, the Buckeyes have a new defensive coordinator, fresh talent on the roster and a revamped scheme, while Michigan doesn’t even know if it will have its greatest offensive weapons available.
This year, it falls on McCarthy’s shoulders.
“Better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war,” McCarthy said. “We just absolutely have so much joy playing this game and there’s that deep warrior inside of us that (believes) no matter what it takes, we’re going to get it done.”
Ohio Stadium, perhaps the garden McCarthy speaks of, is a harrowing landmark in modern Michigan football memory — one that has bore nothing but heartbreaking defeats.
McCarthy has a chance to rewrite that narrative. His inaugural season as the starter hasn’t been the first act that was promised, but beating Ohio State — that would be a show-stopping finale.