COLUMBUS — As the minutes ticked down to the biggest game of his life, J.J. McCarthy — the 19-year-old quarterback lauded for his Björn Borg-like poise and wedded to his meditation regimen — struggled to remain calm.
“I was a little amped up,” McCarthy conceded afterwards. “I’ve been waiting to play this game for so long.”
On college football’s greatest stage — an undefeated showdown at the Horseshoe against No. 2 Ohio State, with drastic championship implications at stake — McCarthy gathered himself and delivered. He authored a brilliant, legacy-building, four-touchdown performance, vaulting No. 3 Michigan to a resounding 45-23 victory.
“He was just on fire in every way,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said.
This past week, Harbaugh kept his message simple. He wanted McCarthy to “have at it” come Saturday, and McCarthy responded by mirroring Harbaugh’s sentiment, saying that he just wanted to be himself.
And for the first time since being anointed QB1 way back in September, McCarthy did look like himself. He resembled the five-star recruit whom Michigan fans pinned their hopes on during the program’s nadir in 2020, the player they clamored for throughout fall camp.
That vision — those aspirations — built to the moment that transpired Saturday.
After the game, McCarthy sported a freshly-minted “2022 East Division Champions” hat, the tag still clinging to its exterior. Smiling, he greeted a question about the Wolverines’ passing game with a sigh.
“That was pretty good,” McCarthy said. “We were just waiting for it to come out. We knew what it was. It was just great it came out at this time.”
The quarterback of the Michigan football program is subjected to scrutiny inapplicable to most other positions, and locales, in college football. Not even McCarthy, heralded as the precocious wunderkind, would be immune.
And much of that criticism was warranted, too. McCarthy unseated senior Cade McNamara in part because of his arm talent, and yet the Wolverines’ vertical passing game proved virtually non-existent throughout the season. Before Saturday, they had just six completions for more than 30 yards on the season.
All year, McCarthy insisted that things would change — he refuted any notion of a disconnect, reasoning that the plays were working in practice, which provided a larger sample size. He stuck to that narrative last Saturday after Michigan eked out a victory over Illinois, winning in spite of its passing game.
Then, his words felt hollow. Now, they feel ingenious.
“We just kept hitting and hitting and hitting, and something’s gotta give,” senior receiver Cornelius Johnson said, grinning. “Today, when it mattered most, in front of millions of people, we were able to connect.”
It mattered not only because of the stage, but also because of the circumstances. Standout junior running back Blake Corum, still plagued by the left leg injury he suffered last week, did not see the field after the first drive. Missing its bellcow, Michigan’s offense sagged through its opening three drives; McCarthy looked jittery, bailing in clean pockets and overthrowing open receivers.
Then, lightning struck.
On a third and nine early in the second quarter, McCarthy made a difficult throw across his body with pressure in his face. Johnson did the rest, catching the ball along the sideline and high-stepping out of a shoestring tackle all the way into the endzone, good for a 69-yard score.
On the ensuing drive, McCarthy and Johnson connected again. Johnson dusted his defender with a double move, and McCarthy found him wide open in the middle of the field for a 75-yard touchdown. At once, Ohio Stadium hushed, the Buckeyes trailing.
“We have trust in ourselves and the mindset that they can’t run with us,” Johnson said. “… We watched hours of film throughout this week, and it’s beautiful to see it all play out in a good way for Michigan.”
Just as Michigan watched hours of film on Ohio State’s defense, the Buckeyes did the same when studying the Wolverines’ offense. Conscious of Michigan’s run-heavy identity, Ohio State packed the box, shoving in an extra defender instead of deploying a deep safety. Early, the strategy seemed to be working — the Wolverines had 10 rush yards on five carries and just three points through three drives as a result.
But on consecutive strikes to Johnson, McCarthy took advantage.
It almost felt like Ohio State was daring him to throw the ball. He felt that way, too.
“A little bit, yeah,” McCarthy said. “Especially at first when they were stopping the runs for two, three yards a carry and the safeties were playing so low. That excited me even more.”
He channeled that excitement into a machine-like performance. Michigan set a definitive tone on the opening drive of the third quarter, anchored by McCarthy. On his first designed run of the afternoon, McCarthy dragged a defender for 19 yards and, on the following play, he placed a beautiful ball for freshman tight end Colston Loveland, converting a 45-yard touchdown off a trick play.
A drive later, McCarthy put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat. On third and two from the two yard line, he powered his way across the goal line, pinballing his way into the endzone.
The Horseshoe fell silent.
“I fight coach for more of those plays,” McCarthy said. “Just give me the ball when we need to get some gritty yards, and I’m gonna go get them.”
As the game wound to a close and the inevitability of Michigan’s win set in, McCarthy turned his attention toward the stands. From the sideline, he waved to a suddenly-sparse crowd — Ohio State fans, once boisterous, had beelined toward the exits.
Postgame, McCarthy — relentlessly humble — wouldn’t take credit for the scene.
“I’m not worried about personal achievements,” he said when asked about his four touchdowns. “I’m just happy for every one of our guys. I couldn’t do it without the other ten guys on the field.”
But against Ohio State, in the biggest game of Michigan’s season, the Wolverines couldn’t have won without McCarthy.