Earlier this week, an SB Nation poll showed that the majority of Michigan football fans weren’t confident in junior Cade McNamara as the starting quarterback.
It’s an easy conclusion to draw when — prior to this week’s matchup — more than 80% of the Wolverines’ touchdowns had come on the ground and especially when, other than an 87-yard touchdown against Northern Illinois, McNamara had done little to show he can carry the offense when the run game can’t.
That changed on Saturday. Against Wisconsin, he showed that mistrust was doled out prematurely.
It’s no secret that up until this point, Michigan has primarily chosen to run the ball. Coming into this Saturday, the Wolverines were averaging 290.8 rushing yards per game compared to just 164 in the air. Meanwhile, Wisconsin holds the nation’s top rushing defense, having held its first three opponents to an average of 23 rushing yards.
And Michigan knows what happens when a team figures out how to stop its run game. It happened last weekend: Rutgers held the Wolverines to a season-low 112 rushing yards, and McNamara did little to pick up the slack. He played a decent first half, completing 8-of-11 passes for 156 yards, but his performance fell off later in the game, completing just 1-of-5 passes for seven yards in the second half. Michigan eked out a win while relying on a stymied run game that kept trying to shove a round peg into a square hole. Still, the struggles did little to damper Michigan’s confidence in its passing game.
“I think throughout the season, our intermediate stuff has been really good,” McNamara said on Sept. 27. “We’ve thrown it deep in the game, (and) we’ve been able to do that really well, so I think we’re building. … When we’re in those scenarios where we have to throw our way back into a game, I think I’m more than capable of doing that.”
And on Saturday, McNamara and his receivers followed through. It started with a 34-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass to junior receiver Cornelius Johnson in the first quarter and ended with another aerial play to Johnson that put Michigan up by 21 in the fourth quarter. In between those highlight-reel moments, McNamara proved himself with smart, consistent second-half plays that culminated in 17 completed passes on 28 attempts for a total of 197 years — a season-high.
While the passing game was markedly improved from previous weeks, it still wasn’t perfect. The first half was riddled with juggled balls and missed targets. McNamara threw 10 incomplete passes in the first two quarters. While some fault was on the receivers, McNamara’s throws were frequently misplaced, often lagging behind the route-runner.
The offensive performance was as much a testament to the receivers as the quarterbacks themselves. With about 10:48 minutes left in the third quarter, sophomore receiver Roman Wilson sprung up behind a Badger cornerback to snag a seemingly-uncatchable 38-yard bomb from McNamara on third-and-ten. Four plays later, J.J. McCarthy snuck the ball into the end zone with a one-yard rush.
Often, McCarthy proved himself to be a valuable supplement to McNamara’s offense. In the fourth quarter, the freshman quarterback extended the Wolverines’ lead to 28 with a 56-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Daylen Baldwin. The flashes of brilliance that have come from McCarthy, combined with fits and bursts from McNamara so far this season, are leading some Michigan fans to hope for a switch in the starter.
But, if the Wolverines’ coaching staff is to be believed, McNamara’s starting position has never been in danger. Nor should it be.
In the season opener, McNamara registered 136 yards for two touchdowns. At the time, the mark was the second-highest in his Michigan career. Two weeks later against the Huskies, that number was up to 191. Two weeks later — this weekend against the Badgers — he topped it again for 197 yards.
None of this is to say that those are stellar, game-changing numbers. But they’re going in the right direction.
By the time the second half started, McNamara’s mistakes were few and far between. The throws and catches looked much cleaner in the final two quarters, evidenced by McNamara completing 6-of-7 attempts.
“I kind of knew going into this game that it would be difficult to run the ball,” McNamara said after Saturday’s game. “I accepted the challenge, and we got the dub.”
Why start a competition at quarterback after Michigan won on the road at Camp Randall for the first time since 2001? After the first underdog win of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure? After a 5-0 start to a season that began with bare-bones expectations?
As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t throw a wrench in your entire offensive scheme to fix it.
Maybe McNamara won’t throw an 85-yard-game-winning touchdown against Ohio State next month, but, for now, he’s getting the job done.
And that’s all Michigan fans should ask for.
Managing Sports Editor Lane Kizziah can be reached on Twitter @KizziahLane.