The last time Cade McNamara took the field in Michigan Stadium, little went according to plan.
Facing Penn State in his first collegiate start last November, McNamara finished just 12-of-25 through the air for 91 yards before leaving the game early with a shoulder injury. Unable to muster any offense, Michigan slogged through a 10-point loss.
Saturday told a different story.
In the Wolverines’ 2021 season-opener, McNamara flourished, going 9-of-11 with 136 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, leading Michigan to a 47-14 victory. By the time he departed with 5:48 minutes left in the third quarter, the Wolverines had a comfortable 26-point lead with McNamara having engineered four touchdown drives.
“He moves our team,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. “All the drives he’s been in — we score points when he’s out there.”
Entering the season, some anticipated a quarterback competition would unfold between McNamara, prized 5-star freshman J.J. McCarthy and Texas Tech transfer Alan Bowman. Instead, the Michigan coaching staff handed the reins to McNamara without much of a contest. One game in, the returns are undeniably positive.
McNamara’s performance against the Broncos was not flawless, but growing pains are to be expected from a first-time full-time starting quarterback. A pair of McNamara’s passes were batted down at the line of scrimmage, perhaps a product of poor pass protection; on a separate series, McNamara missed a wide-open Roman Wilson for a would-be touchdown, instead electing to dump the ball off in the flat. After the game, McNamara noted that the offense had one communication mishap which he took fault for.
For now, Michigan has no choice but to ride out McNamara’s learning curve. The miscues are certainly palatable when accompanied by the consistent production that McNamara provided on Saturday.
From the onset, McNamara appeared comfortable. On Michigan’s first drive, the Wolverines set the game’s tone, steamrolling their way 75 yards down the field in 3:51 minutes. McNamara completed his only two pass attempts, ran the offense with tempo and helped complete a fourth down conversion.
As the Wolverines continue to place an emphasis on the run game — which multiple players have labeled as the team’s offensive identity — McNamara’s opportunities to sling the ball downfield may be limited. Yet, when called to do so against Western Michigan, he executed with precision, a trait that plagued his predecessor, Joe Milton.
Early in the second quarter, McNamara dropped in a beautiful pass down the sideline for senior receiver Ronnie Bell, who made a tremendous catch that was called back due to a dubious offensive pass interference call. On the very next possession, McNamara found Bell again, floating in a perfectly placed spiral that Bell took the distance for a 76-yard touchdown.
“They were showing us a few different things that we were expecting,” McNamara said. “I was able to recognize it and was able to see the 1-on-1 with Ronnie. He made a great route, and all I had to do was put it out front for him.”
McNamara makes it sound simple, but for a Michigan offense hoping to assert itself in the running game, he may not be asked to do much more. In the second half, McNamara attempted just two passes on two total drives. Still, one of those drives resulted in a touchdown following a 74-yard jet sweep to sophomore receiver A.J. Henning.
If McNamara can continue to complete passes like the one to Bell on a consistent basis, Michigan would appear to be in good hands.
“I think whatever the gameplan sees fit will determine our run-to-pass ratio,” McNamara said. “I don’t mind — I thought the calling today was perfect. We got the job done. Running the ball a little bit more, I don’t mind that, it makes my job a little bit easier.”
McNamara’s difficulty is only amplified from this point forward. A primetime matchup against No. 20 Washington on Saturday, Sept. 11, and with Bell’s status suddenly precarious following a right leg injury, he may be without his most-dependable option for the long haul.
But for one game, at least, McNamara gave the Wolverines all they could have asked for.