EAST LANSING — For so many weeks, and so many months, a portion of the Michigan football fanbase yearned for J.J. McCarthy. He was the five-star recruit with ridiculous upside, the gunslinging youngster who wowed Ann Arbor with every open-field juke and cross-body throw that amplified the pressure on Cade McNamara, the actual starting quarterback, as coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff hung onto a timeshare at the position.
It was McCarthy who jogged onto the field for Michigan’s most important possession of the season in the fourth quarter of a rivalry game against the seventh-ranked Spartans. He lined up in the backfield as the No. 6 Wolverines protected a three-point lead, with tailback Blake Corum alongside. McCarthy received the snap, faked a handoff and then — somehow — the ball landed on the turf, recovered by Michigan State on the U-M side of midfield.
That was all the Spartans needed on an afternoon dominated, defined and, ultimately, desecrated by the Heisman Trophy candidate Kenneth Walker III, whose 197 yards (on 23 carries) and five touchdowns sunk Harbaugh’s Wolverines. The dream of a Michigan revival cracked when, just over two minutes later, Walker broke free up the middle for a 23-yard score that gave MSU a 37-33 lead. The Spartans held on over the final five minutes to leap squarely into the College Football Playoff discussion.
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Buoyed for seven weeks by freshness ascribed to defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, whose new scheme washed away sullen memories of 2020, the rush defense crumbled against Walker, a transfer from Wake Forest who is assured a place in the rich history of the Paul Bunyan Trophy. Walker slashed through Macdonald’s group like no opponent this season. He ran through tacklers with power and around them with burst, reaching the end zone over and over again.
When McNamara threw a backbreaking interception to seal defeat in the a minute remaining, the crowd of 76,549 at Spartan Stadium unleashed a roar so loud the press box shook.
Yet for so long on Saturday, the game unfolded beautifully for Michigan, with a passing offense seemingly awake for the first time all season. Questions about the sustainability of Michigan’s run-heavy offense originated in the aftermath of a win over Washington in Week 2 in which McNamara threw for just 44 yards while as tailbacks Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum combined for 326 yards.
There would come a point, critics said, when one of the stouter Big Ten opponents proved capable of stifling arguably the nation’s best running back tandem. And at that point, critics said, McNamara would either sink or swim when offensive coordinator Josh Gattis needed him most.
His moment arrived in Michigan’s biggest game of the season. A ferocious Michigan State front seven punished Haskins (14 carries, 59 yards) and Corum (13 carries, 47 yards) on each run, swarming the ballcarriers to minimize yards after contact.
So the impetus for movement fell to McNamara, whose confidence was surely tested by the insertions of McCarthy in recent weeks. He answered his critics on third-and-4 from Michigan’s own 7 during Michigan’s first possession. As the protection eroded, McNamara hung in the pocket and rifled a strike to wide receiver Andrel Anthony Jr., across the middle of the field. The freshman from East Lansing then outran the Spartans for a crowd-stunning 93-yard score.
For the first time all season, McNamara carried the momentum of an unexpected big play into subsequent drives. The checkdowns and short passes that have formed the backbone of U-M’s passing attack remained, but he also made several gutty throws downfield to tight end Erick All, who had the best game of his career. En route to a field goal to give the Wolverines a 13-7 lead, McNamara connected with All for 21 yards as his tight end dragged defenders for extra yards. On Michigan’s next possession, which ended with another touchdown pass to Anthony, the longest pass was a 15-yarder to All on a square-in over the middle.
All told, the Wolverines churned out 333 yards of offense in the first half, with only 24% of their production via running plays.
While the increased production from All continues an encouraging pattern, the emergence of Anthony was far less predictable — even as he received praise from Harbaugh for his development in practice this season. Anthony entered Saturday’s game without a catch, with only one touch this season — a 6-yard rush against Northwestern last week. He assumed a starring role against his hometown Spartans with a gorgeous 17-yard reception from McCarthy that gave Michigan a 20-14 lead late in the second quarter, plucking the ball above the helmet of cornerback Chester Kimbrough.
A late field goal by Jake Moody three minutes later gave the Wolverines a 24-13 lead at the half.
McNamara’s aerial outburst — he finished 28-for-44 for 383 yards, two touchdowns and an interception — was aided by a Michigan defense that generated a pair of takeaways in the first quarter before MSU quarterback Payton Thorne settled in. Thorne panicked on Michigan State’s initial third down as outside linebacker Aidan Hutchinson broke through the offensive line. Thorne rolled to his left and flung a careless pass into double coverage down the left side, where safety R.J. Moten — who was also recruited as a baseball player — made an over-the-shoulder catch near the goal line.
Macdonald’s influence surfaced two possessions later, as he called a blitz in which nickel back Daxton Hill rushed from the slot while inside linebacker Josh Ross rushed up the middle. To compensate, Macdonald dropped outside linebacker Mike Morris into coverage. Morris was in the perfect spot to make an easy interception after Hill got close enough to Thorne to deflect the pass.
Michigan’s offense took over at the MSU 30 and produced a field goal by Moody. Moody made all four of his official field goal attempts, plus three more just before halftime negated by timeouts as Mel Tucker attempted to ice him.
But two hours later the clock reached zero, and those three points proved less relevant than Tucker expected. His star tailback had proved nigh unstoppable while Michigan’s quarterbacks crumbled. The Spartans remained unbeaten as Michigan prepared for a long and lonely ride home.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football blows big lead to fall to Michigan State, 37-33