J.J. McCarthy waited years to walk through the Big House tunnel as the starting quarterback of the Michigan football team. So perhaps it’s fitting that, on the day of his first collegiate start, he had to wait a little while longer.
At 8:18 pm — 13 minutes after the originally scheduled kickoff time between the fourth-ranked Wolverines and Hawaii — McCarthy emerged from the tunnel. The weather delay had tamed his grand entrance: There was no banner for him to touch, no marching band to serenade him. The stadium remained eerily quiet and empty, the soaked fans still locked outside the gates.
So when the game started, the sophomore quarterback created his own pomp and circumstance. In a 56-10 rout of the Rainbow Warriors, McCarthy — long pegged as Michigan’s quarterback of the future — made an irresistible case that he should be the quarterback of the present, too.
“J.J. had a near flawless performance,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “… I thought he had a great game. He’s playing really well. We’ll start J.J. next week. He’s earned that by performance, by merit.”
The decision, in the wake of a months-long, “neck-and-neck” quarterback competition with senior Cade McNamara, is a culmination of McCarthy’s ascension. McCarthy had already done enough to warrant a battle with McNamara, the incumbent who steered Michigan to a Big Ten Championship and a College Football Playoff berth last season. Yet two-and-a-half weeks ago, the complexion changed. Harbaugh maintained that McCarthy’s game reached an “inflection point” on the season’s eve, when the Wolverines held a scrimmage at Michigan Stadium.
Since then, McCarthy has merely taken off.
“Every single day,” Harbaugh said, “he’s been about as good as can be.”
He was certainly as good as can be Saturday night. In seven first half drives, McCarthy went 11-for-12 with 229 passing yards and three touchdowns, good for a 334.5 passer rating. On those seven possessions, the Wolverines found the endzone six times.
When McCarthy took the field for Michigan’s first offensive series, the majority of the crowd stood — perhaps because of the damp seats, perhaps in anticipation. Immediately, the theatrics began.
On the Wolverines’ second play from scrimmage, McCarthy lofted a 42-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Roman Wilson.
The show was on.
“Everything he does in practice, he transferred over here to Main Street,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “So I expected nothing less.”
McCarthy didn’t throw an incompletion until the waning minutes of the first quarter, only doing so because graduate receiver Ronnie Bell dropped a pass that hit him in the chest. Early in the second quarter, he delivered a 54-yard strike down the seams to senior receiver Cornelius Johnson and followed that picture-perfect pass with a 13-yard touchdown dart to Bell. On the ensuing drive, he placed a 33-yard back shoulder fade into the lap of sophomore running back Donovan Edwards, setting up Michigan’s fifth touchdown.
It all looked so easy, so effortless. And it felt that way on the Michigan sideline, too. Junior edge rusher Braiden McGregor and junior safety R.J. Moten recalled huddling with teammates, eyes glued to the whiteboard held by co-defensive coordinator Steve Clinkscale.
They didn’t get a chance to watch McCarthy.
“But then we hear the crowd erupt,” McGregor recalled. “And then we’re like, ‘Oh,’ and then we see what happened.”
As McCarthy flourished, that scene repeated itself.
“He was prepared, ready to go,” Bell said. “I mean, he was rolling.”
Part of McCarthy’s success can be attributed to Hawaii’s own ineptitude, but he had to confront adversity, too. Pregame, he stayed loose by throwing in the tunnel while awaiting clearance to return to a soaked field. And amidst a grueling quarterback competition, every throw — every decision — carries extra weight, regardless of the score or the opposition. That scrutiny adds an extra layer of pressure, even against an outmatched opponent.
McCarthy seemed unfazed.
“He controlled the whole game,” Corum said. “He was confident.”
With 6:22 left in the second quarter, McNamara relieved McCarthy, seemingly indicating that his sensational evening had ended. But four minutes later, McCarthy re-entered the game to a chorus of cheers. He promptly led the Wolverines 52 yards down the field, a drive that closed with perhaps his best pass of the night: a 17-yard strike across his body, while stepping up in the pocket, to Johnson in the front corner of the endzone.
“That was outstanding,” Harbaugh said, later conceding that he can’t remember ever making a similar throw. “He was phenomenal. A phenomenal performance.”
By halftime, McCarthy’s job was done. He staked Michigan to a 42-0 lead, keying a domineering performance. In the second half, the offense stalled — a reminder, as Corum alluded to postgame, why the Wolverines approach every game as if the opposition is Ohio State or Michigan State. They expect that level of intensity.
A Week Two game against Hawaii won’t normally conjure that emotion. But those who tuned in — whether it be the 110,012 who outlasted the storm, the millions who watched from home or Harbaugh himself — surely left with the same impression, awestruck by McCarthy’s brilliance.