Can Michigan’s “Miracle Boy” JJ McCarthy carry offense if Ohio State turns The Game into The Shootout?

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Jim Harbaugh says he can turn water into wine. Mazi Smith says he can beat defenses “in every way”.

This week, defense attorney Mike Sainristil even dubbed him “The Miracle Boy.”

No, Michigan quarterback JJ McCarthy is not a biblical character. He actually ranks 10th among Big Ten quarterbacks in passing yards per game (177.5). But you’d never know by listening to the Wolverines talk about him.

“He goes out there and makes it happen,” Sainristil said Monday, expanding on the Miracle Boy nickname. “That’s just who he is – lengthening plays when he needs to, getting the ball to receivers, picking up fumbles, rolling out and still completing a pass or being let go and throwing it to the running back and completing it – that’s exactly, who he is is.”

It’s true that McCarthy has pulled off all those feats this season and he’s earned the credit for his playmaking. But if UM is without either or both of Blake Corum or Donovan Edwards on Saturday, or if Ohio State turns The Game into The Shootout, it’s fair to ask: Can McCarthy keep up?

The Wolverines thought yes when they promoted him over former starter Cade McNamara earlier this season. When Harbaugh announced the decision in September, he compared Michigan’s quarterback contest to the one he oversaw between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick at the San Francisco 49ers. Smith and McNamara were the safe and reliable options. Both won games by managing them. Kaepernick and McCarthy raised the offensive ceiling with stronger arms and faster feet.

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Here’s the catch: Michigan’s passing attack was more explosive last season with McNamara as quarterback. In 11 games, the Wolverines have completed just 12 passes that gained 30 or more yards — about 1 per game, which ranks 99th out of 131 teams. Through 14 games last year, UM completed 24 such passes in 14 games (1.7 per game), which ranked 30th.

“They hit (big passes) in training,” Sainristil said. “You’ve met me a few times. I don’t think they’re far off, it’s just the little things.”

The little things can be fixed. And to be fair, UM’s running game has already produced more explosive plays this season — 26 plays for 20+ yards compared to 24 last. McCarthy deserves credit for blaming defense for his athleticism.

Also, Michigan’s praise for him is often based on intangible qualities like composure and leadership.

Earlier this month, Harbaugh dubbed McCarthy an “Ice Man,” like legendary tennis player Bjorn Borg, who was famous for his composure under pressure. Senior tackle Ryan Hayes said this week that he tries to encourage McCarthy during games, “but I don’t think he really needs anyone to talk to him,” Hayes continued. “I think there’s just that about him. Some people have that and he has it.”

However, how many times has this cool demeanor been tested? Michigan has fallen behind just four times this season, and it has never fallen behind with more than one possession. McCarthy has only attempted 30 passes twice this season, and he threw for 250 yards once — when he threw for 304 against Indiana, which allowed 45 more pass yards per game than any other Big Ten defense.

Hayes said he has “complete confidence” in McCarthy, who is pursuing a pass-heavy game plan. Smith says McCarthy sees the role of “QB1” in practice. And Harbaugh is so confident in his quarterback that his only advice to McCarthy this week was, “Got it.”

“You do,” McCarthy said Tuesday, interpreting that advice. “…What I did to bring me here, I will most certainly do on Saturday.”

That trust will do him good. But is it enough to survive against his toughest opponent so far?

What if the Buckeyes take a 14-0 lead? What if UM’s running game stutters without (or even with) Corum and Edwards, forcing McCarthy to throw more?

Will Miracle Boy have an answer then?

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