Joe Milton took his helmet off on the sideline and shook his head in frustration.
On the first play of Michigan’s first drive against Wisconsin, the junior quarterback already had his offense in a hole. He unleashed a pass meant for fifth-year senior Nick Eubanks, but Eubanks couldn’t come up with the catch. The pass was tipped up and intercepted. Four plays later, the Badgers found the end zone.
The Wolverines dug themselves in an even deeper hole on the next drive, when Milton threw a pass straight to a Wisconsin linebacker, who returned it all the way to the red zone. There wasn’t even a receiver in the area. Those two plays set the tone for the rest of the game: a 49-11 embarrassment.
“That’s something I really have to look at,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Did Joe understand the keys where he was looking? Threw a ball right to another guy. I think the first one, he was rolling out of the pocket, thought he threw a good ball, it was a contested catch but should’ve been made, the ball got tipped up and they were very opportunistic and made the interception. The second one, he threw it right to — didn’t have the lane, didn’t have the throw and made the throw anyway and it got intercepted.”
In the third quarter, with Milton just 9-for-19 for 98 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, Harbaugh decided that performance wasn’t good enough and brought in sophomore Cade McNamara. Then, for a few minutes, there was something resembling hope.
A 23-yard pass to Ronnie Bell. A 28-yard pass to Eubanks. A 23-yard pass to Mike Sainristil for a touchdown, followed by a two-point passing conversion to Giles Jackson. McNamara marched the Wolverines down the field and reignited a quarterback controversy that was seemingly decided months ago. Michigan was down 35-11 at the time, but the question remained: Could McNamara be the one to finally elevate this inconsistent offense?
Of course, it all came crashing down to earth. On McNamara’s next drive, three straight incompletions led to a punt. On his last, two handoffs went nowhere and a pass to Bell was blown up at the line of scrimmage.
After the game, Harbaugh refused to be forthcoming on who would start at quarterback next week, saying only that, “We’ve gotta evaluate all things.”
But even if McNamara could’ve been the answer, he came in with too little, too late. Milton’s two interceptions left Michigan in too deep a hole to come out of, and the third quarter of a blowout was far too late for a newfound comeback spark.
Overall this season, Milton hasn’t been bad. He hasn’t been a savior, but he passed for over 300 yards in the losses to Michigan State and Indiana and made just enough flashy plays to tease the Wolverines’ faithful.
Against the Badgers, though, his performance wasn’t near good enough.
“It takes away the opportunity of being able to play fast,” Sainristil said. “Two interceptions back to back leads to two touchdowns that they had. When we look at our game-winning edges, it just doesn’t allow us to play the way we want to as an offense. I feel like it pushes back our scheduling and playcalling.”
If past seasons under Harbaugh are any indication, we won’t know which quarterback will start against Rutgers until that player takes the field in Piscataway. Regardless of who it is, that person needs to step up and get the offense going — fast.
Because in addition to a coaching problem and a secondary problem and an offensive line problem and an injury problem, Michigan may now have a quarterback problem.
If the Wolverines hope to salvage anything out of this season, they need to find a solution, and time is running out.