Tuesday, J.J. McCarthy addressed Michigan’s downfield passing woes with unbridled optimism.
“It’s gonna click,” the sophomore quarterback said. “We’re on the upward trend with all that stuff, and it’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen, I can promise you that.”
There is still time for the Wolverines to deliver on McCarthy’s guarantee. But in Saturday’s 34-3 victory over Nebraska, the promise wasn’t kept.
On paper, the Cornhuskers seemed like the perfect remedy for Michigan’s conundrum. Entering Saturday, Nebraska had allowed 258.1 passing yards per game, the third-worst figure in the Big Ten.
Once again, though, the lingering disconnect between McCarthy and his receivers prevailed.
“We were close again on a couple today,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was really pretty good coverage. Some of the deep balls we threw were well-covered.”
McCarthy finished the game 8-for-17 with 129 yards — his lowest total this season in a game that he started. He completed just three passes for more than 20 yards, and all three involved the receiver notching significant yards after making the catch.
On three separate occasions, McCarthy and his receivers could not complete a deep pass. Once, he overthrew sophomore Andrel Anthony, just as he did last week against Rutgers. In another instance, he seemed to loft a well-placed ball for graduate Ronnie Bell, but Bell could not reel in the one-handed catch. Then, looking for senior Cornelius Johnson, McCarthy sailed his throw high — though it was still catchable — and Johnson struggled to adjust his body to make a play on the ball.
No one within the program has diagnosed the root of the problem, at least not publicly. Early in the season, McCarthy blamed the full health of his once-injured shoulder, saying that his arm felt “110%.” Tuesday, McCarthy placed the onus on himself, saying the receivers get open and he needs to find them. Michigan co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, meanwhile, has said that it’s the coaching staff’s responsibility to fix it.
In recent weeks, the recurring message has been a need for more reps.
“We’re really close,” Bell said Saturday. “We just need more reps, more practice reps, before and after practice, during practice. And we really gotta get on the same page. Today I think we were as close as we’ve ever been to really getting those plays. So we just need more reps.”
Players and coaches continue to clamor for more reps and cite flawless performances in practice. But, for whatever reason, that success has yet to translate to Saturdays, with an ever-growing sample size of ten games now looming large, especially with the all-important clash in Columbus just two weeks away.
“We just have to take it to Main Street,” junior running back Blake Corum said. “We practice it, we’re hitting, we’re hitting. And I tell them, ‘Keep doing it. Don’t stop. Don’t stop throwing the deep balls because J.J. overthrew someone, or someone dropped it. Why stop? It’s gonna hit.’
“That’s like saying if I get hit in the backfield, I’m gonna stop running. Nah, I’m gonna keep running. Don’t stop throwing the ball, because it’s gonna connect.”
And while the team continues to preach patience and growth, insisting that they are close to “clicking,” the reality indicates otherwise.
When asked what the receivers can do to help McCarthy, Harbaugh danced around the question, instead praising Nebraska’s coverage. When someone suggested to Harbaugh that Michigan’s run-first approach — the Wolverines ran the ball 49 times Saturday — makes it difficult for McCarthy to find and maintain a rhythm, Harbaugh seemed to agree:
“That’s valid,” he said.
Bell, though, disagreed.
“It’s hard not to be in a rhythm when we’re moving the ball as efficiently as we are,” Bell said. “Because at the end of the day, the objective is the same, whether you’re throwing it or running it. I think those two things can coexist. It’s just with reps. We’re gonna coexist the way people like.”
It just hasn’t happened yet.