GLENDALE, Ariz. — Throughout Saturday afternoon’s game against No. 3 TCU, JJ McCarthy showed why he is viewed as Michigan’s biggest star quarterback in at least a decade, and why the Wolverines fully believe the former five-star recruit can lead them to a national championship.
And throughout Saturday afternoon’s game against the Horned Frogs, McCarthy also showed how far he still needs to grow to get Michigan to that level.
As the purple confetti rained Saturday and the Wolverines fell to TCU, 51-45, in the 2022 Vrbo Fiesta Bowl, McCarthy lingered back, simultaneously worthy of credit and blame. The sophomore threw for a career-high 343 passing yards, ran for another 82 sack-adjusted rushing yards and accounted for three touchdowns (and that isn’t counting two completions downed inside the one-yard line). He showed brilliant accuracy at times, resiliency after a shaky start and both his arm strength and rushing ability were on full display.
But so too were McCarthy’s two pick-sixes, which loomed large given the final outcome of the game. Also notable was a 2-for-8 completion percentage for eight yards on third downs, and a surprising 8-for-14 clip on pass attempts of 10 yards or more.
McCarthy made more than enough plays to lead Michigan to victory — arguably more than in any of his previous games for the Wolverines — but history will also remember the plays that contributed to the Wolverines’ defeat.
“All credit to them,” McCarthy said of TCU in his only press-conference answer before leaving the podium. “They won the game in the 60 minutes that were played. They’re a good football team. No matter what it is, they got the win. Fought our hearts out. There’s a lot of things that we could have done better. Can’t wait to watch the tape.”
After the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was understandably proud of his quarterback’s effort. The sophomore didn’t flinch his performance Saturday, despite many flinch-worthy moments for both him and the Wolverines’ defense. Down 14-3 early in the second quarter, McCarthy pushed a 50-yard pass through the air, slotting it where only Roman Wilson could catch it. He delivered another deep shot up the middle to Ronnie Bell with the Wolverines down 15 in the third quarter. On the very next drive, he pulled Michigan to within five points with a 34-yard flea-flicker to Wilson.
After throwing his second pick-six — a play that felt like a death blow to just about everyone else at State Farm Stadium — the quarterback ran twice for 59 yards, delivering a touchdown drive and keeping Michigan in the game.
Whether it was through five deep shots downfield on seven attempts, wide-open runs or simply scrapping his way around defenders just to keep a play alive, no one would question McCarthy’s effort.
“It was a titanic effort,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “Just a phenomenal effort by JJ, a titan of an effort. I am so proud of him just like he was my own son. What a competitor he is.
“The throws that he was making, and the throws that Ronnie Bell and Roman Wilson and Colston Loveland and the guys were catching. I mean, it was at a very, very high level. No question about that. … And it wasn’t easy. It was tough to make throws underneath, so they were making the deep ones.”
Yet after the game, the quarterback once again stood on the field and watched another team celebrate a College Football Playoff win. McCarthy, along with his teammates, had come a drive or even a play short. Though McCarthy had endured a playoff loss before, Saturday was the first time in his career that McCarthy had been Michigan’s starter, and the Wolverines didn’t win. His usually positive, often cheerful demeanor was buried next to the Wolverines’ title hopes.
Since McCarthy committed to Michigan in 2019, his expectations for the program have been higher than anyone’s. Michigan had gone more than a decade since landing a five-star quarterback recruit, and seemed far removed from national championship contention by the time McCarthy arrived on campus. But even before he had played a snap for Michigan, he fully believed the Wolverines could and even should win the national title during his time in Ann Arbor.
“The JJ McCarthy that I know on a day-in, day-out basis, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, he’s a great player, great talented player, great athlete, great leader,” said Harbaugh. “And the best thing about him is he always puts the team above himself. Tremendous competitor. Phenomenal.”
Those lofty goals are a part of why Michigan has gone 25-3 over the last two seasons. But that’s also why Saturday’s loss arguably stung more for fans and players. McCarthy’s effort is not up for debate, but there were youthful mistakes and missed opportunities.
Like his team as a whole, McCarthy showed everything he needed to show to win a national championship. But like his team as a whole, costly mistakes sent McCarthy home without a win, and showed just how hard it is to win on college football’s biggest stage.
“He fought. He played his ass off,” said defensive back and Michigan captain Mike Sainristil. “He did what he could to help this team out. That’s who he is. He’s going to come back and learn from this one, same way he did at the end of last year. Just come back and do what it is he does. He’s special.”
The good news for Michigan fans is that, with McCarthy as locked in and motivated as ever, the offseason has already begun. The Wolverines don’t have a quarterback controversy, and there is no doubt that McCarthy will be a captain, leader and face of Michigan’s program next season. While the other top six teams in the current College Football Playoff rankings are expected to have new starting quarterbacks next season, McCarthy will spend the entire offseason building off a largely successful opening season as a starter.
“We’ll be back,” McCarthy said before walking off the podium. “And I promise that.”
McCarthy showed the will and skill to win a title Saturday. Anyone doubting that he can close the gap on the mistakes that kept him from doing so in Arizona is doing so at their own risk.