ANN ARBOR, Mich. – With all this being sidelined with Will-Michigan-running-back-Blake-Corum-able-to-play-hand-wringing, the fact is that first-year starting quarterback JJ McCarthy will make his first start in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry at hostile, noisy Ohio Stadium.
Both teams are 11-0, with Ohio State going into the 118th edition of Saturday’s The Game in Columbus with its highest scoring offense and No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings and Michigan with run-first offense and No. 3 . The winner takes the Big Ten East division title and plays for the championship and likely a spot in the four-team national playoffs.
McCarthy won the starting spot after his performance in the second game of the season and led the offense, which is No. 9 in the country at an average of 39.4 points per game. But everyone knows Corum has carried the workload and offense, leading the nation with 19 total touchdowns, including 18 rushes, and making tremendous contributions for Michigan as the No. 4 team in rushing (243.8 yards per game).
Corum injured his left knee late in the first half of last Saturday’s game against Illinois, ran the ball once in the second half before sitting out the rest of the game. His status for The Game is uncertain, but what has always been clear is that Ohio State more than likely always planned to make Michigan one-dimensional and challenge McCarthy to win the game.
McCarthy has completed 66.8% of his attempts for 1,952 yards, 14 touchdowns and two interceptions this season. He averages 177.5 yards per game. He ranks 26th nationally in passing efficiency.
His coach, Jim Harbaugh, was the Michigan quarterback who played at Ohio State and happily shared his message with McCarthy this week.
“Try it,” Harbaugh said of what he was about to say to McCarthy. “It’s pretty cool. After that last minute comeback win in the fourth quarter (against Illinois last week), game-winning drive. That doesn’t happen to quarterbacks that often and being in this situation for the first time and winning it, he’s got it just on it.
“I was talking about turning water into wine. I made that comment over the summer that he had this ability. Glad he’s on our team. He protects the team fiercely. He’s a great teammate. But he has that courage and determination. I wouldn’t tell him more – just do it.”
Harbaugh has dubbed McCarthy and his cool demeanor, as in, Unflappable, “Ice Man.” His teammates have confirmed that the 19-year-old starter is always in the moment and never changes his demeanor.
“JJ is very easygoing,” center Olu Oluwatimi said this week. “I love that from a quarterback, to just be able to focus on the next game regardless of the outcome of the previous game and do it at a high level and do it while smiling and having fun. I love being with JJ.”
McCarthy centers himself through meditation, first in the morning when he wakes up, and on game day it’s his tradition to mediate on the field at the goalpost. On Saturday he will do this again.
“You just reset it when I’m in my bedroom, in the woods, or back in the Big House,” McCarthy said this week. “It just brings you back to yourself and centered, and it’s just huge. No matter what environment I’m in, I just feel at home.”
McCarthy reads inspirational books and often posts powerful quotes on his social media. When asked about Harbaugh’s “go for it” advice, he said it’s about being authentic and honest with yourself while preparing for a game and then during the game.
“The saying we love here is just ‘do you,'” McCarthy said. “And I’ll get done. What I did to get me here, I will certainly do this Saturday.
He carries himself optimistically, always wishes everyone a nice day and always smiles. What you see is what you get, said his teammates. The guy who smiles in interviews is the same guy who always smiles in a dressing room. Underneath, however, is a competitiveness that Harbaugh said earlier this season reminds him of himself.
His teammates see it too.
“He is an extremely calm player. He doesn’t get too high or too low,” said left tackle Ryan Hayes. “I always try to talk to him during the game but I don’t think he really needs anyone to talk to him. I think that’s just about him. Some people have that and he has.”
Michigan hasn’t won at Ohio Stadium since 2000, when Drew Henson was quarterback. He said this week that based on his observations this season, McCarthy absolutely has what it takes to beat the Buckeyes in Columbus just like he did 22 years ago.
“Historically you have to play to beat your rival,” Henson said. “It’s not a normal game plan, it’s not a normal game. There’s usually a couple of critical moments that play a big part in results, and having a quarterback that’s a playmaker like him and has that part of his game is a huge advantage. That being said, it’s all about opportunities and making the most of opportunities.”
McCarthy is grateful for the moment. He mentioned that he was a fan of former OSU quarterback Braxton Miller and also loved Michigan’s passion for the rivalry.
“It feels like the stars are aligning, like it’s finally here,” McCarthy said. “It’s meant to be and we honestly couldn’t be more excited. We can’t wait to get out and have fun on Saturday.”
He said he was unfazed by all the stories about Ohio Stadium’s hostile environment.
“At the end of the day it’s really all noise and it’s all just a bunch of fans who like to boo you and don’t like you very much,” McCarthy said. “You just do what you can to convert that and use it against them. I feel like a lot of situations that we’ve been through on the road this year with adversity will help us tremendously this weekend in Iowa.”
Recently, Harbaugh has referred to his players as “happier warriors” on several occasions. McCarthy shared a Chinese proverb to confirm his coach’s observation.
“When he mentions that, I like to go back to the quote, ‘Better a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war,'” McCarthy said. “We absolutely have so much joy playing this game. There is this deep warrior within us that no matter what it takes, we will make it.”
That’s McCarthy’s goal.
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