McCarthy, Michigan prove themselves right in major rivalry statement

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After J.J. McCarthy and his receivers raised more questions than they answered in Michigan’s win over Illinois last week, Ronnie Bell admitted the team’s passing attack was “leaving a lot of meat on the bone.” Sitting next to him, McCarthy said, “And it’s ready to come off next Saturday."

It sure was.

It sure did.

Bit by bit, bite by bigger bite, McCarthy and Michigan chewed up Ohio State’s defense in a seismic 45-23 win in Columbus on Saturday to book a trip to Indianapolis and, in all likelihood, to the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row.

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They did it without their Heisman candidate running back Blake Corum, who was supposed to be their only hope of pulling the upset. They did it without any NFL-level -- Ohio State-level -- receivers, which was supposed to be their undoing. And they did it at on a perfectly sunny day at The Horseshoe, where the Wolverines hadn’t won since 2000 and where a “Let’s Go Blue!” chant broke out in the fourth quarter after McCarthy ran for a touchdown to put the visitors up 11.

Lest anyone thought all he could was throw it.

All Michigan could do was run it, right? They couldn’t throw it right for much of the season. For all the allure of McCarthy’s arm, all the hype around his glittery five-star talent when he took the starting job from Cade McNamara back in September, Michigan has relied mostly on Corum’s legs. It looked doomed when his injured knee knocked him out of Saturday's game after two carries.

The Wolverines had thrown one 60-yard pass all season. Then McCarthy threw two 60-yard touchdowns in the first half, on back to back drives for good measure. Ohio State had allowed just two 40-yard passing touchdowns all season. Then McCarthy hung three on them. While they were gouging the Big Ten on the ground this year, Jim Harbaugh said the Wolverines “saved some things” for the Buckeyes. They saved their best, for one of the biggest wins in program history.

“We’re a complete offense,” said McCarthy. “That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re able to do through the air or on the ground. Throughout the year, that’s been our mentality. Like I say all the time, Smashfest. We love running the rock and letting those big boys eat, but when the time came, the other half of us was going to show up. I was just really happy that it came today.”

Last year’s win was catharsis for Michigan. This is their coronation as kings of the Big Ten. They outscored Ohio State 28-3 in the second half to leave no doubt. They have dethroned the Buckeyes and officially ended one of the longest-running dynasties in Big Ten history. It is not a stretch to say that. This conference once again belongs to Michigan.

Fifth-year linebacker Michael Barrett, who posted a game-high 11 tackles in another dominant second half by the best defense in the country, said it without saying it. Asked if Michigan has seized control of the rivalry with back to back wins against Ohio State, which came on the heels of nine straight losses, Barrett draped a Big Ten East champs T-shirt over the podium and grinned, “I mean, I ain’t got much to say about that.”

It is hard to overstate this turnaround by Jim Harbaugh. Two years ago, the Wolverines were coming off a two-win season in which a rash of COVID cases was the only thing that saved them from another beating by the Buckeyes. Harbaugh, who had his salary sliced in half that offseason, was on thin ice at Michigan. Now he has the Big Ten on ice for the second straight season.

The accusation in 2020 was that Michigan dodged the Buckeyes. On Saturday, Harbaugh dodged a question about overtaking them, and must have enjoyed it. “A lot of layers to that onion,” he said. Later, he smiled and said, “It feels great to sing The Victors in Columbus. Our team earned it in every way.”

It appeared to be in trouble early on. Michigan struggled to move the ball on its first few drives and looked lost without Corum. But its defense made enough plays to keep the game close, and then McCarthy started proving himself right. With pressure in his face on a key third down midway through the second quarter, he slung a gutsy pass to Cornelius Johnson, who shed his defender and took it 69 yards to the house. On the first play of the next drive, Johnson got wide open down the middle and McCarthy hit him in stride for a 75-yard touchdown, like they’d been clicking all season, like there were never any doubts about the passing game in the first place.

“I was always going to keep firing,” said McCarthy. “I always had 100 percent trust in every single one of my my guys, and in myself. To do it today, it was so special.”

Trailing 20-17 at halftime, McCarthy and Michigan didn’t try to make any adjustments. They didn’t need to. McCarthy said the message in the locker room was simple: “We’re the best second-half team in the country, and we’ve proved it every week.” Then they proved it again, starting on the first drive of the second half when McCarthy lofted a perfect 45-yard touchdown into the hands of Colston Loveland. McCarthy had sparked the drive with a darting 19-yard run. He finished off the next one with a three-yard rumble into the end zone.

“I’ve always said it, he’s got that ‘it’ factor in every way,” said Harbaugh, who stayed true to his word and anointed McCarthy QB1 when he outplayed McNamara in Michigan’s first two games. “First-year starter, first game starting against Ohio State, at Ohio State, to play that great, everybody on our team knows it. So, what can that do for him? He already has it, he’s already got it. He was just on fire in every way, running the ball, throwing the ball. Focused and determined.”

McCarthy was admittedly jittery at first, “because I’ve been waiting to play this game for so long.” Once he settled in, he said he “knew it was over.” He said Michigan was “able to do everything we wanted to do” against Ohio State in the second half, a complete 180 from years past. The Buckeyes didn’t just bully the Wolverines in the first several seasons of Harbaugh’s tenure. At times, they toyed with them. They scored 62 one year, 56 the next and their head coach Ryan Day threatened to “hang 100” on Michigan the year after. Michigan is 2-0 in The Game since.

When the Wolverines went up 31-20 on McCarthy’s fourth touchdown early in the fourth quarter, a raucous crowd at Ohio Stadium grew quiet. So did the Buckeyes’ sideline, and Michigan heard it. Silence never spoke so loudly.

“You could feel when their will breaks,” said Barrett. “When they haven’t been used to getting hit or getting as physical as we came to play, you can just feel it go out of them. Once we went up two scores, we all looked over to their side and you could see they started hanging their heads, they weren’t getting off the ball as fast, they weren’t having that confidence that they’re used to playing with.

“You could tell, just by looking at them.”

Donovan Edwards took care of the rest. On a day Michigan’s offense came alive in the air, it went back to the ground to put the Buckeyes under it. When Edwards was asked afterward about his “long touchdown run,” he captured the fourth quarter by smiling and and asking, “Which one?” His first went for 75 yards. His second went for 85 and emptied the Horseshoe with four minutes to go. Playing through an injured wrist, Edwards finished with 220 rushing yards. Michigan finished with 530 yards of offense.

And it might be just getting started. Toward the end of his press conference, McCarthy removed his Big Ten East champs hat, placed it on the podium and said, “This doesn’t matter, because the job’s not finished."

“We got so much more to do and so many places to go,” he said. Next stop: Indianapolis.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Ben Jackson / Stringer