COLLEGE PARK — J.J. McCarthy had a chance to throw his first touchdown in four weeks against Maryland. Instead, the junior quarterback threw his first interception in nine.
Both sides of the situation illustrate the kind of day that McCarthy had in a 31-24 squeaker against the Terrapins. As much as he made plays to keep the No. 3 Michigan football team ahead, he was nowhere near the level of a Heisman front runner that he was cracked up to be a short time ago.
And around that descent, the offense has struggled, too. The Wolverines earned three rushing touchdowns against the Terrapins, but they didn’t exactly look confident in the process. With McCarthy finishing a season-low 13-for-25 passing with just 141 yards to his name, Michigan found itself locked in a matchup much closer than expected.
“I think it was just a good game played by Maryland and we definitely need to get back to the drawing board and fix some things,” senior running back Blake Corum said postgame. “And play better. We just need to play better, bottom line. No excuses.”
Sure, Corum has a point. The offensive struggles were all over the field. With poor pass protection from an injury-plagued offensive line limiting time in the pocket, and receivers routinely failing to get separation, McCarthy didn’t have an easy night.
But as Corum said himself, there aren’t excuses for a poor performance.
McCarthy had multiple opportunities to bounce back. One play before his second quarter interception, he threw the ball closer to two Terrapins than his own receiver, but they failed to pick him off. The next play, linebacker Jaishawn Barham’s interception ended the half by giving Maryland a heavy dose of momentum.
Even after a humbling play, McCarthy kept making mistakes. He threw just five completions on 15 second half passes, tallying 44 yards. The majority of his passes fell to the turf outside of a receiver’s grasp, or he otherwise aimed them at a covered receiver. Whereas last week, Michigan took the ball out of his hands for the second half, this time, McCarthy didn’t deliver when it was.
And yet, he kept getting the opportunity to work through his issues, like midway through the fourth quarter when the Wolverines took over at center field. On the first play, McCarthy had a wide open receiver in graduate wideout Cornelius Johnson for a deep touchdown, but they couldn’t connect. McCarthy had another chance to get his game back on track, but instead he left the field looking down as the punt team came out.
Nitpicking a couple sequences shows the struggles McCarthy faced against Maryland, but the larger problem is how common they were. Even if he wasn’t throwing a ton of interceptions or otherwise losing the ball, he was essentially giving it up by not moving the offense down the field.
Following a sub 100-yard outing at Penn State last week after barely being called on to throw the ball, McCarthy’s clunker against the Terrapins can be cause for concern.
“Obviously the pick — he hadn’t thrown a pick since Bowling Green,” acting head coach and offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore said. “So everybody’s hard on him, but he’s played almost perfectly to this point of not throwing a pick. … Other than that, I mean, he had a chance to have the touchdown on the last one to (Johnson) and we just gotta continue to make plays and create things to get guys open and we’ll continue to do that.”
Moore is optimistic for good reason. The Wolverines have seen the magic McCarthy can create for them. But the magic hasn’t been there recently — especially over the past month.
Perhaps there’s a way for him to rekindle that. Notably, his struggles have ramped up without head coach Jim Harbaugh on the sideline. Considering their connection, maybe McCarthy misses his coach’s presence or the confidence boost it might give him. McCarthy also missed the help of his favorite target, Roman Wilson, after the senior receiver left the game injured in the first quarter. And while Moore said McCarthy was fine, he has limped occasionally since the Penn State game.
Regardless of the reasoning, McCarthy continued his slump against the Terrapins. And while Michigan escaped with a win, his struggles turned what should’ve been an easy win into a taxing one.
McCarthy has tremendous talent, but that’s harder to see when his most recent interception is multiple games closer than his most recent touchdown. And as the Wolverines wait for him to get back to his usual form, even games like Maryland become a lot harder.