When Cade McNamara led a 17-point comeback against Rutgers last week, it appeared the Michigan football team had found its answer at quarterback.
After an underwhelming two-week stretch for junior quarterback Joe Milton, McNamara did everything necessary to secure the Wolverines’ starting job, and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gave it to him against a winless Penn State team on Saturday. But in a 27-17 loss to the Nittany Lions, the Wolverines were doomed by erratic play from both Milton and McNamara.
Throughout the game, Michigan’s quarterbacks failed to capitalize on the team’s performance on the ground. The Wolverines racked up 108 rushing yards in the first half alone, which should’ve set their passing game up for success.
“It makes the (offensive) line not play harder, but play with more confidence maybe,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Stueber said. “… The defense starts getting more worried about the run game so they start bringing down some safeties, so it kind of just opened up the offense as a whole.”
But the opposite was true. Michigan was reluctant to throw the ball downfield for much of the afternoon, leaving much to be desired. A good portion of that can be attributed to the shot McNamara took on the team’s second possession, which sent him to the locker room with a shoulder injury and forced Milton onto the field.
The same accuracy struggles that sent Milton to the bench against the Scarlet Knights and Wisconsin continued on Saturday. After a 21-yard completion on his first attempt, Milton’s next two throws were way off the mark. One sailed over a receiver’s head, while the other bounced a few yards in front of his target.
Harbaugh turned back to McNamara after two Milton-led series resulted in zero points. McNamara completed his first four passes on the Wolverines’ opening drive prior to the injury, but when he returned from the locker room, the effects of his shoulder pain were clear.
He completed only one pass longer than 15 yards in the second half. Without the gunslinger mentality that powered Michigan past Rutgers, he struggled to put together scoring drives. He finished 12-of-25 passing with just 91 yards and no touchdowns — a far cry from his performance last week, when he completed 27-of-36 passes for 260 yards and accounted for five total touchdowns.
As the game progressed, McNamara’s shoulder worsened. When the Wolverines needed a score to make it a one-possession game with eight minutes left, McNamara opened the drive with five consecutive incompletions. Sandwiched between them was a strip sack, though a penalty prevented the turnover from standing.
By the midway point of the fourth quarter, Harbaugh had seen enough. He opted to roll with Milton in the game’s final minutes.
“Cade, really gutty performance to come back, but the shoulder did start to tighten up,” Harbaugh said. “I could see it. He was doing everything he could to stay in the game, but I just felt like that was tightening up and causing (pain). I felt like going to Joe was the best option for us. I can tell you this: Cade was doing everything he possibly could to rally the team and to play on when (his shoulder) was tightening up on him. That was the reason.”
But by then, it didn’t matter who was under center. The Wolverines had already proved themselves incapable of taking advantage of run-game success to stretch the field vertically. Playcalling became predictable, and a comeback wasn’t in the cards for an offense juggling an injured quarterback and an inaccurate one.
A week after it seemed Michigan had solved its quarterback woes, Saturday left the team with more questions than answers at the position.