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Cade McNamara started off with a bang.

On Michigan’s first third down of the game, the junior quarterback completed a pass to freshman receiver Andrel Anthony for 93 yards and the Wolverines’ first touchdown — the first of the freshman’s career. 

Although the Wolverines ultimately fell to Michigan State, 33-37, McNamara had the best game of his own career by almost any measure. Going 28-for-44 for 383 yards, he topped his career best in passing attempts, passes completed and total yards. He completed over 125 more yards than his previous season high against Nebraska, when the passing game really emerged. 

McNamara’s presence has grown on the field throughout the season, evidenced not only by his growing stat sheet but also how comfortable he looks in the pocket. Even beyond the highlight-reel touchdowns, he advanced Michigan with throws an earlier iteration of this offense never would have been able to complete. 

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh utilized freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy as well, despite McNamara’s strong performance for the majority of the game. The freshman tallied three completed passes on four attempts for 23 yards and a touchdown. Collectively, the duo’s 406 passing yards bested the Spartans’ 196. 

Still, the quarterback duo exhibited some uncharacteristic errors that ultimately gave Michigan State the upper hand. 

“We were confident we could move the ball,” McNamara said. “It was a combination of good pass pro today — we just came up short and that’s on me. I didn’t execute good enough for us to win this one.”

Perhaps the most blatant example came from McCarthy in the fourth quarter. With 7:12 minutes on the clock and Michigan up by three, McCarthy was brought back onto the field. At 1st-and-10, McCarthy and sophomore running back Blake Corum fumbled the exchange, and the ball was recovered by Spartan defensive end Jacob Panasiuk. The ensuing drive resulted in a Michigan State touchdown and ultimately handed the Spartans the game.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh caught a lot of flak for the choice of McCarthy over McNamara after the game. When asked about the play, he simply remarked that “it did not go smoothly” and that McNamara was “working through some stuff” at the time.

Even if the misstep was the final nail in the Wolverines’ coffin, it was hardly the only one.

McCarthy had fumbled in the previous possession as well, although it didn’t result in a turnover. In Michigan’s last-ditch attempt at a comeback, McNamara didn’t fare much better. 

Down by four with 1:15 minutes left and the ball at the 33-yard line, McNamara returned to the field. After a roughing the passer call gave the Wolverines 15 free yards, he threw a pass that was intercepted by Michigan State corner Charles Brantley, extinguishing Michigan’s last hope of a comeback. 

Combined, McCarthy and McNamara went 16-for-22 for 252 yards in the first half and 15-for-26 for 154 yards in the second. Neither could execute in the red zone, as evidenced by Michigan’s four field goals. 

And, for that, McNamara feels responsible. 

“I think we had a couple plays, there was a few plays that stand out, there’s not many,” McNamara said. “I think I needed to do better. I just can’t do that at the end of the game. I’ve gotta check it down or something.”

Though he couldn’t finish the job on Saturday, what was once a glaring weakness of this offense — its passing game — has transitioned into a strength. When called upon, McNamara moved the ball through the air to keep the Wolverines in the game and to the precipice of beating a top 10 team.

He just couldn’t finish the game.