GLENDALE, Ariz. — J.J. McCarthy just stood and watched.
After a staggering Fiesta Bowl, the sophomore quarterback stood away from the jubilation taking place at midfield. He observed as the confetti rained down and TCU emphatically raised the Fiesta Bowl trophy. A year ago, McCarthy had followed the same practice, watching off to the sideline as Georgia celebrated the Orange Bowl.
But last season, McCarthy was waiting in the wings, knowing his chance on the College Football Playoff stage was yet to come. It was a moment of hope, when an infatuation, an obsession was born to get back to that point.
On Saturday, that chance was there. And as the dust settled, McCarthy still found himself in an eerily similar spot. But this time as McCarthy watched the celebration unfold, the reason he was standing 30 yards away from the podium fell squarely on his shoulders.
There were other pivotal moments that caused Michigan to lose the Fiesta Bowl. There were questionable playcalls and defensive lapses, all the sorts of inexplicable chaos that a college football game can feature. Yet, for better or worse, the performance of the quarterback defines a game. And McCarthy didn’t do enough to win it.
McCarthy battled. His final statline revealed that much: 343 yards, two passing touchdowns, 52 rush yards and another score on the ground. It could’ve been the stuff of legends on a different day. But not on this one.
Two pick sixes, both gut-wrenching — and both McCarthy’s fault — devastated the Wolverines.
The first spotted TCU seven points early in the game. Now, despite moving the ball well otherwise, the Wolverines faced an early deficit.
The second interception, one when Horned Frogs linebacker Dee Winters perfectly jumped a crossing route, put Michigan in a 34-16 hole late in the third quarter, down three possessions which eventually proved insurmountable.
“He fought, he played his ass off,” senior cornerback Mike Sainristil said. “He did what he could to help this team out. That’s who he is. He’s gonna come back and learn from this one, the same way that he did at the end of last year.”
McCarthy completed 20 passes in the game — but the two that wound up in TCU’s hands will be remembered most. In the aftermath of the second interception, McCarthy led the Wolverines on several torrid scoring drives to keep them afloat.
It showed the duality of McCarthy’s performance. He never stopped fighting to dig Michigan out of a hole he created.
“Just a phenomenal effort by J.J.,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “A titan of an effort. I am so proud of him just like he was my own son. What a competitor he is.”
McCarthy proved he could perform on the big stage. He didn’t wilt under pressure and kept clawing when he could’ve thrown in the towel and decided it just wasn’t his day.
With 8:50 left in the fourth quarter, Michigan down 51-38 and facing fourth-and-nine on their own side of the field, McCarthy didn’t want to leave the field. Even as the punt team jogged on, McCarthy stood and stared at Harbaugh — longing for a chance to go for it, not wanting to take the game out of his hands.
Eventually, McCarthy obliged. The next time he took the field, he led them to a touchdown to make it a one score game.
Then, he had one more shot with 52 seconds left. Down six points, 76 yards separated him from a legacy-defining touchdown drive. Instead, his final snap of the season was one he wasn’t even ready for — the ball hit him in the gut before he was set, leading to a frantic scramble that ended with a turnover on downs.
McCarthy began a slow trot back toward the sidelines, Harbaugh meeting him halfway. The two put their arms around each other and made the rest of the walk back together, coach and quarterback, their performances ultimately what will be remembered from the game above all else.
“The J.J. McCarthy that I know on a day-in, day-out basis…(is) a great player,” Harbaugh said. “Great, talented player, great athlete, great leader. And the best thing about him is he always puts the team above himself. Tremendous competitor. Just phenomenal.”
It’s an unenviable position for McCarthy to be in. His heroics got the Wolverines agonizingly close to a historic comeback, but his mistakes are the reason they won’t be competing for a national championship next Monday.
It’s a burden he has to bear. But as the leader — as the quarterback — how he acts ultimately sets the tone for his teammates.
So, when McCarthy entered the post-game press conference, he kept his message brief.
“We’ll be back,” McCarthy said. “I promise that.”
Then, after just one question, he jumped up from his seat and walked out.
He left it all on the field for sixty minutes. He watched another trophy celebration which he so desperately coveted from afar. He gave a glimpse into the anger that will assuredly fuel him next season. Then, he disappeared from the public eye, entering an offseason where he’ll fume behind closed doors.
That’s J.J. McCarthy. For better or for worse.