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John Niyo

John Niyo: McCarthy keeps eyes fixed on future after leading Michigan over Ohio State

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It wasn’t a mic drop. It was a hat drop.

But for J.J. McCarthy, the intention was the same in the aftermath of Michigan’s monumental 45-23 win over Ohio State on Saturday. He took the ball cap from his head — the one that read “2022 Big Ten East Division Champions” — and threw it on the table in front of him, like a gambler finally showing his hand.

And just like he’d shown a full house of 106,787 inside the 100-year-old Ohio Stadium, leading the Wolverines to their first win here in a generation, McCarthy knew he had the nuts.

“I mean, it was great and all, obviously, to get a win,” said McCarthy, Michigan’s sophomore quarterback. “But at the end of the day, this one doesn't even matter. This doesn't matter.”

That’s when he tossed the hat down, a bit dramatically, before continuing, “The job's not finished. Because we’ve got so much more to do and so many places to go.”

Oh, the places you’ll go, with a quarterback like that and a team like this. McCarthy and the Wolverines left no doubt Saturday where they’re headed next, turning a taut rivalry showdown with No. 2-ranked Ohio State into a runaway rout in the fourth quarter. And after they’d celebrated a dominant win by planting a Block ‘M’ flag in the middle of the Horseshoe Saturday, the defending Big Ten champs were equal parts demonstrative and defiant.

“My boy sounds like Kobe Bryant to y’all, huh?” laughed Donovan Edwards, who was seated next to McCarthy at Michigan’s postgame press conference.

This was his shot, certainly. And when it really mattered, McCarthy didn’t miss.

Oh, sure, there were some errant throws early on in this game, and Michigan looked flustered at times, in the middle of a roiling scarlet-and-gray storm. Twenty minutes into the game, McCarthy was just 3-of-10 passing and the Wolverines — who’d already watched Blake Corum limp to the sideline after gamely trying to give it a go on a bum knee — felt fortunate to only be trailing, 10-3.

“First half, I was little amped up,” McCarthy explained later, “because I've been waiting to play this game for so long.”

Blowing up the Buckeyes

But then came one of those explosions the Wolverines knew they need to win here, in a place they hadn’t won since Nov. 18, 2000. That was two weeks before Cornelius Johnson was even born, and two months before McCarthy entered this world.

Yet they arrived just in time in this game. On third-and-9 from his own 31-yard-line, McCarthy stared down an all-out blitz from the Buckeyes and threw a rope to toward the visitors’ sideline, then watched Johnson spin out of one tackle and step through another as he raced 69 yards for the tying score with 7:29 left before halftime.

On Michigan’s next possession — following an Ohio State field goal — it didn’t waste any time in doing it again. McCarthy took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff to Edwards and then stepped up in the pocket to launch a rainbow downfield, where Johnson was running free after shaking safety Cameron Martinez on a deep post route.

Ohio State’s defensive game plan was clear, with safeties creeping toward the line of scrimmage and coordinator Jim Knowles selling out to stop Michigan’s run game. And when I asked McCarthy after the game if felt like the Buckeyes were daring him to throw, he smiled.

“A little bit, yeah,” he replied. “So that excited me even more.”

'Happy mission'

Now then, McCarthy’s not an overly excitable 19-year-old. He meditates before every game, and earlier this week in Ann Arbor he was quoting Bruce Lee, telling us, “It’s better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”

But he knew coming into Saturday’s game that he’d better be ready to play his best, with Corum’s status in serious doubt and even Edwards — out since early in the Nebraska game two weeks ago — a bit of a question mark playing with a soft cast on his right hand.

Michigan had leaned heavily on Corum and the run game all season, but particularly since mid-October. And over the last five weeks, McCarthy had completed just 55.9% of his throws while averaging 160 yards through the air.

“That's just been our mentality,” McCarthy shrugged. “Smash-fest, all the time.”

Yet when the time came to take their shots downfield in the passing game, head coach Jim Harbaugh said, “We knew that we could make those kinds of plays.”

They also knew something else. Something Harbaugh has been saying all season. Ever since McCarthy committed to play for Michigan as a five-star quarterback recruit, really.

“I mean, he’s got it,” Harbaugh said Saturday. “He has got that ‘it’ factor, in every way.”

And as this game unfolded — and the Buckeyes eventually unraveled — McCarthy showed all the ways he can beat a team, finishing with 290 total yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers.

On the opening drive of the third quarter, he finally ran a read-option keeper — all but shelved since the Penn State win — and barreled his way for a 19-yard gain along the Ohio State sideline. (“In second half, it was ‘Hey, let's run JJ!’ ” Harbaugh said.) Then on the next play, McCarthy dropped back and found freshman tight end Colston Loveland for a 45-yard touchdown pass.

And by that point in the game, the warrior in the garden clearly was feeling it.

“Once the nerves kind of calmed down and everything settled,” McCarthy said, “I knew it was over from then.”

He’d add one touchdown himself to start the fourth quarter, bulling his way into the end zone on third-and-goal from the Ohio State 3 on a designed run.

“I fight Coach (Sherrone) Moore for those plays,” McCarthy said, referencing Michigan’s offensive coordinator. “Like ‘Just give me the ball when we need to get some gritty yards, and I'm gonna go and get em.’ ”

And then he watched as Edwards applied the finishing touches with a pair of breakaway touchdown runs, the sophomore quarterback pausing after the second of those to give a royal wave to the departing Ohio State fans in the stands.

“Like Coach Harbaugh says, it's been a happy mission,” he said. “It's been a very happy mission.”

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