Postgame TV interviews aren’t supposed to be interesting.
Typically, they’re pretty cut-and-dry. The head coach talks about how proud he is of his “boys,” a star quarterback credits his receivers for being open or — if the interviewer is lucky — a player uses the win to talk smack about a rival (see: Winovich, Chase). At best, the network’s sideline reporter gets a nice sound bite that’s shown on SportsCenter for a few days, but most of the time, what’s said on the field after the game offers little insight into the team’s preparation or mindset.
Saturday, though, after the No. 6 Michigan football team’s 21-17 victory at Penn State, junior quarterback Cade McNamara grew emotional when discussing his celebratory postgame embrace with sixth-year center Andrew Vastardis.
“He’s been here for so long,” McNamara told ESPN’s Molly McGrath. “I mean, his body has gone under some serious pain over the last five years, and this (win) means a lot. For the guys who have been here, we were so close two years ago, and we didn’t pull it through, but we pulled this one through.
“… When I came to Michigan, especially with the class we came in with, we wanted to be the change. We wanted to make a difference. This is a testament to that.”
The comments followed a game where, during crucial moments in a tough environment, McNamara continually rose to the occasion. They reflect the mindset that has shaped his continued improvement throughout the year. His already impressive statline — 19-of-29 for 217 yards and three touchdowns — doesn’t even tell the full story.
In every moment where the offense needed a spark, McNamara helped provide it, evidenced by his early-second quarter pass to junior receiver Cornelius Johnson to prevent a third straight three-and-out. Even after a fourth quarter fumble that gave the Nittany Lions a three-point lead and seemed poised to derail the Wolverines’ offense, McNamara responded with the game-winning touchdown pass to junior tight end Erick All on a mesh pattern.
“He’s done nothing but be outstanding as the starting quarterback,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “This past game I think was also just another step — another in his evolution, his growth as a football player. Fourth quarter comeback, those are special.”
McNamara has faced his share of criticism, justified or not, as the Wolverines’ starting quarterback. Early in the season, as Michigan drew up run-heavy schemes against cupcake non-conference foes, it was easy to see the conservative offense as a way of scheming around its quarterback’s perceived limitations. With five-star freshman J.J. McCarthy waiting in the wings, many wondered if McNamara was a handicap — not an asset — to the Wolverines’ offense.
His modest statlines in those games fed into that notion. In the first four contests of the season, McNamara averaged just 133.5 passing yards per game. In the six games since, he’s thrown for 224.8 yards per game. Some of that stems from changing schemes — it’s difficult to run the ball against Big Ten defenses, so Michigan has relied more on its passing game. But it also reflects McNamara’s gaining confidence in his receivers, his offense and, most importantly, his own arm. At the same time, he’s also garnered the confidence of his coaching staff.
With that confidence and increased role, McNamara has managed to maintain the same cool-headed game-management qualities that defined him early on. Even in difficult situations, he’s thrown accurate balls and rarely tries to force risky passes. It’s no coincidence that McNamara’s strongest games this season have all come in the hostile road environments of Michigan State, Nebraska and Penn State.
“I think my ability to find my checkdowns when I am under duress is something that I’ve had to develop a feel for — the pocket in a game scenario,” McNamara said. “We’ve tried to simulate game situations as much as possible, but, I mean, being the quarterback, you never get hit, so really I guess sort of finding the last moment I can stay in the pocket and being able to still find guys is something that I think I’ve developed a lot over the course of the season.”
At the start of the season, McNamara was a solid quarterback. He didn’t wow onlookers by any means, but he consistently performed well enough to avoid teetering toward an upset against weak opponents.
Now, though, he’s gone beyond that. Since Saturday, it’s clear that McNamara is no longer just not losing games.
He’s winning them.