Through the first six games of the Michigan Football team's season, J.J. McCarthy has passed each test given to him with flying colors. But against Penn State, the coursework is about to get a whole lot harder. Kate Hua/Daily. Buy this photo.

In sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy’s young career as a starter, there really haven’t been many moments of high pressure. No need for fourth-quarter comebacks, no last-second heroics and really no genuine tests. Things have, for the most part, gone rather swimmingly.

That could all change this weekend.

Looming on Saturday for the No. 5 Michigan football team is a heavyweight bout against No. 10 Penn State.

It’s the Wolverines’ toughest challenge thus far, a game with a colossal impact on not only the Big Ten East standings but the College Football Playoff outlook as well. And the game’s magnitude is certainly the largest of McCarthy’s career.

“I mean, this is a great team,” McCarthy said of the Nittany Lions Tuesday. “It’s just a tremendous opportunity and I can’t wait to do it. I can’t wait to go out there and show what I could do against that great team.”

Through his first five starts, McCarthy has been steady. He hasn’t been a world-beater, but he hasn’t needed to be. Michigan has one of the best rushing attacks in the nation, and the backfield has carried much of the offensive burden to this point.

But when the run is stymied, or the Wolverines are forced to throw, McCarthy has had his share of growing pains. Whether it’s overthrowing open receivers on deep balls, a hesitancy to use his legs or a bad habit of fumbling, McCarthy hasn’t been perfect.

Against the teams that populated the first six slots of Michigan’s schedule, that didn’t matter all that much. 

Against Penn State, it could be a different story.

It’s for that reason that McCarthy knows he needs to be better, and in his eyes, that starts with the deep ball.

“The biggest key, and the only key, is myself,” he said. “Putting the ball on (my receiver) and just really understanding that as I’m recovering from this injury from the offseason that I’m starting to gain my strength back. … Just being able to get back into that rhythm again and not be able to feel like I need to put my all into a throw and just realize that I have a strong arm.”

In spite of his struggles with the deep ball, McCarthy still leads the FBS in completion percentage by almost four percentage points at 78%. As soon as McCarthy reins in his excitement on those home run balls, the Wolverines’ offense will gain another dimension — they’re just waiting on McCarthy.

It’s as much a learning process as anything, and McCarthy will be the first to tell you that. He knows that he’s young and that he’s making mistakes. But he’s learning from them. 

What he credits with helping him be as accurate a quarterback as he is — an immeasurable number of reps dating back to the fifth grade — is also what has set him back.

“I always approached it with that Kobe Bryant mentality; ‘I’m gonna get 1,000 shots in,’ ” McCarthy said. “Well you can’t really do that with your arm — I learned that last year with the SLAP tear.”

When he tore the cartilage in his throwing shoulder from overuse, McCarthy got his first lesson. 

That situation can be mirrored across the entirety of his early football career. Much like the pain he felt from his injury serving as a micro lesson as to why he must be careful with overuse, his mistakes through his first five starts have been their own lectures in life as a Division I starting quarterback.

All lesson plans need their own assessments, and McCarthy’s situation is no different. The window for growing pains is rapidly closing. On Saturday, Penn State will be McCarthy’s exam.