ANN ARBOR, Mich. — As expected, it was a gigantic mismatch. As predicted, Michigan scored a lot of points, and perhaps made a point or two. The Wolverines were sharp, mostly mistake-free and dominant on defense.
The problem with these non-conference scrimmages is, you don’t get true clarity. You’re not completely sure what you’re seeing. But you can find clues.
In Michigan’s 51-7 blasting of Colorado State in the opener Saturday, clues emerged. For one, the quarterback battle isn’t technically over, but it’s trending strongly in J.J. McCarthy’s direction. And second, the defense appears to have athletic pass-rushers to compensate for the ones it lost.
Fair warning, clues can be deceiving against a thoroughly outmanned foe like Colorado State, which has a new coach, 59 new players and a quarterback who had never started a college game. The talent disparity will be similar the next two weeks against Hawaii and Connecticut. These warm-up games may be fun for the home team, but as forms of entertainment, they’re lacking. It’s one reason conferences and the college football playoff are expanding, partly to ensure tougher early-season tests.
But when you got ‘em, you might as well use 'em. Conclusions are difficult, but in Jim Harbaugh’s quest for clarity at quarterback, it’s on its way. Cade McNamara struggled in his half of football, completing nine of 18 passes for 136 yards. Michigan was 1 for 6 on third downs under him and settled for three field goals on four trips to the red zone.
As per the plan, McCarthy took over early in the second half and his dynamic ability was immediately apparent. He scored on a 20-yard designed run and later added an 18-yard dash. He finished 4 for 4 for 30 yards, with 50 yards rushing. McCarthy will start next Saturday night against Hawaii, and if Harbaugh sticks to his plan, he may name the full-time starter afterward. If McCarthy plays as cleanly and confidently as he did in this one, the competition could be over for now.
Neither quarterback had a turnover. Both communicated well, and Michigan didn’t commit a penalty until an offensive hold late in the game. McNamara didn’t look pleased on the sideline or in the postgame press conference, and said he found the quarterback rotation “pretty unusual.” To his credit, he’s a spirited guy who doesn’t hold back. Asked if he thought he’d won the job before the season — as some had speculated — he answered in a firm monotone.
“I was confident in the way I performed over camp, I definitely felt that way,” McNamara said. “I thought I had my best camp, thought I put myself in a good position, that just was the decision the coach went with. … Whatever my role is, I’m honored that my teammates recognize me for the role I have currently.”
He is a captain, and he was a feisty leader for a team that went 12-2 and won the Big Ten championship. That’s why Harbaugh is reticent to hand the job to McCarthy, the five-star who by most accounts has all the tools and leadership skills.
Harbaugh praised both quarterbacks Saturday and didn’t see the need to massage egos or feelings. Based on McNamara’s body language and words, it’s not the most comfortable situation.
“I don’t feel like I have to manage it,” Harbaugh said. “They’re both tremendous competitors, both are warriors. I don’t feel like I gotta manage anything. Just gotta let them go out there and compete and do what they do.”
Spreading it around
Whether it was opening jitters or the heat of the battle, McNamara looked shaky at the start. Basically, he did what he does, kept things under control and rarely took chances. He didn’t complete a deep pass but found Roman Wilson on a short throw that became a 61-yard touchdown.
Michigan’s abundance of offensive weapons almost puts more pressure on the quarterbacks because both runners (Blake Corum and Donovan Edwards) and a bunch of receivers need to touch the ball. After the Wolverines emptied the bench, 15 players caught at least one pass. McCarthy didn’t get many snaps in the second half because the score mounted quickly.
The defense had plenty to do with it too, of course. Mike Morris clobbered Rams quarterback Clay Millen on the first possession of the second half, and cornerback D.J. Turner scooped the ball and raced 45 yards for a touchdown that made it 30-0. Michigan’s defense was merciless, recording seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss. The Wolverines have insisted the departure of sack-masters Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo wouldn’t be debilitating, and they rotated eight defensive linemen to make their point.
The first game under coordinator Jesse Minter looked a lot like many games under Mike Macdonald, who ran the same defense.
“We put a chip on our shoulder because in (Hutchinson’s and Ojabo’s) absence, everybody thought we wouldn’t be as good,” Morris said. “Now, does Michigan have a guy? No, we have multiple.”
Again, it’s not full clarity at all, just clues. Michigan doubled up Colorado State in total yards (440-219), not a surprise considering the Rams were 3-9 a year ago and overhauled everything. Harbaugh practically sounded amazed at how sharply his team played. The one concern was left tackle Ryan Hayes, who sat out with an injury but is expected back for the Hawaii game.
The guess is, that contest will follow a similar form, except with McCarthy starting. All the angst about who would win the job, or whether a rotation was a good idea, certainly could settle itself. McCarthy did play one snap in the first half, maybe another clue.
“I think things were operating really smooth in the first half, and I finally said, well, let’s get J.J. in there,” Harbaugh said. “And he was electric when he got in, no question about that. I thought he also went through his reads very well. Great to see him play well, super calm, cool, collected. He’s doing a great job, really improved a lot.”
The true sophomore opens up the offense with his legs and makes the read-option a legitimate weapon. Like most players in their second season, the game is slowing down for him, which should speed up his development.
If people wondered whether the Wolverines could still pile up sacks, or worried the quarterback battle would drag on, this was a day of clues. McCarthy is up first next week and Hawaii also is outmanned. Nothing is certain yet, but if McCarthy makes big plays without committing big errors, we should reach a logical conclusion.