JJ McCarthy shines in Rose Bowl victory

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It felt like a nightmare.

As junior quarterback J.J. McCarthy and his unit took the field for the first offensive play of the Rose Bowl, 365 days of anguish had been shed. An entire year, with the specter of a loss to TCU on the back of two gut-wrenching interceptions by McCarthy, finally in the rearview mirror. It was the culmination of a rotation around the sun spent emphatically stating that things would be different this time. And it couldn’t have started worse.

Five seconds into the first quarter, McCarthy rolled out right, looked downfield and threw a back-breaking interception. Instantaneously, a California dream became a waking terror.

It was an unheralded regression. It was a catastrophic collapse. But most importantly — it was out of bounds.

And then, it was a chance to prove this year was different after all.

“It just means everything,” McCarthy said. “Just think about how far we’ve come, all the hardships that we went through as a team and as a brotherhood. Just being able to do it on this stage … Everything that we went through this entire year made us unbreakable, and in the biggest moments we were going to show up.”

Rose Bowls, College Football Playoffs and immeasurably high stakes inevitably lead to the biggest moments. But for a moment, it looked as though McCarthy would fold under the pressure.

With an inch of turf and a lack of re-establishment for No. 4 Alabama cornerback Caleb Downs turning a would-be interception into an incomplete pass, the Wolverines’ offense heaved a sigh of relief. But as became frustratingly apparent throughout the afternoon, Michigan’s offense sputtered at times as it ran into a Crimson Tide-colored defensive wall.

If Michigan was to find success, it needed a McCarthy at his best.

Knotted at 7-7 midway through the second quarter, it got just that. As the Wolverines marched down the field, they let McCarthy’s playmaking ability take over. On a designed trick play, McCarthy pitched the ball to junior running back Donovan Edwards, the running back flipped the ball back to McCarthy, and he sent it to senior receiver Roman Wilson for an explosive 20 yard gain.

“I think (defensive back Kool-Aid McKinstry) stepped down, he made a good play on that and (we) just went off script,” senior receiver Roman Wilson said. “I took it high on my angle, J.J. just … he stepped back on one step and just threw it up. That’s just him having trust in us.”

Catching the ball one-handed and throwing off of his back foot, all while Alabama defensive back Malachi Moore crashed down on him may seem like an inexcusable risk. But for McCarthy and Michigan, it was the secret sauce. In lieu of interceptions, on Monday against the Crimson Tide, the scrambler found beneficial improvisation. 

When the signal caller is at his best, calamity becomes control. Chaos becomes calm.

Capping off the drive, McCarthy evidenced his ability not just to scramble, but to stand and deliver. Hitting sophomore wideout Tyler Morris in stride for his second passing touchdown of the day, McCarthy’s presence had calmed, while the Wolverines had taken the lead going into halftime.

“His confidence in himself, his awareness on the field, just IQ — he’s grown in every aspect you could possibly think of,” senior running back Blake Corum said. “And that’s what makes Number Nine great.”

It wasn’t all roses though. Despite finishing with 221 yards passing and three touchdowns, time and time again, the Wolverines’ offense sputtered on McCarthy’s watch. Whether it was a misplaced completion to Morris that couldn’t achieve a first down, or passes that sailed through the hands of his receivers, Michigan’s offense appeared dead on arrival in the second half.

And as three straight punts, garnished with a sour missed field goal, watched Michigan’s lead evaporate into a 20-13 deficit, things looked grim.

With 4:41 left in the fourth quarter, the Football Gods gifted McCarthy back to back media timeouts, the ability to regroup and a chance.

“They definitely had my heart pounding a little bit, I ain’t gonna lie,” graduate defensive lineman Cam Goode said. “Once I saw the first couple plays and how they were going I wasn’t really worried after that. I saw they had a little bit of motion going on and you know, Nine gon’ be Nine.”

The golden boy had his moment to shine.

Just four plays into the drive, the Wolverines had hit yet another wall. Stuck at 4th-and-2 at Michigan’s 42-yard line, the field general lofted a pass to a wide open Corum, who scampered deep into Alabama territory. From there, McCarthy did it himself, rushing 16 yards on a draw before placing a strike to Wilson.

Two plays and a touchdown later, the Wolverines had knotted the score. And it came off the back of McCarthy’s play.

It wasn’t perfect. It never was. But when the chips were down, McCarthy went all in. After watching from the sidelines in 2021, and bearing responsibility for the heartbreak in 2022, for McCarthy, 2023-turned-24 simply could not transpire the same. It had come full circle and back again.

For the quarterback who four years ago told a Michigan program in the darkest of times to “have faith” that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” on Monday, McCarthy shined bright. 

What was once a living nightmare, had become a waking dream state.

First appeared on www.michigandaily.com

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