Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch

After No. 3 Michigan destroyed Indiana, Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh claimed that quarterback J.J. McCarthy is on track to be the best quarterback in program history. In two games since Harbaugh was suspended by the Big Ten amid an NCAA investigation into sign-stealing accusations within the program, however, McCarthy has struggled to keep pace. 

In wins over No. 11 Penn State and Maryland, McCarthy has completed just 61.2% of his passes for 6.5 yards per pass attempt and an interception. He threw for just 201 combined yards in the two wins as Michigan went away from him in its biggest moments. The Wolverines rushed the ball on 34 consecutive plays against the Nittany Lions as their All-America hopeful was all but sidelined with the game on the line. McCarthy only threw one pass over the stretch, which drew a pass interference call. 

In a 31-24 win over Maryland, McCarthy completed just 52% of his passes and threw his first interception since a three-interception performance against Bowling Green. The Michigan offense scored just once in the final 38 minutes of game time. 

Granted, the competition has increased over the past two weeks. Maryland and Penn State represent the first time this season that Michigan has played consecutive teams ranked in the top 60 of the CBS Sports 133 rankings. But it's still a major red flag as the Wolverines prepare to play their defining game of the 2023 season against No. 2 Ohio State

McCarthy has stood apart as the top quarterback in the Big Ten across the season. Now, Michigan's chances of winning The Game and earning a third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff rests squarely on his shoulders. 

Late struggles

The junior from La Grange Park, Illinois, was a borderline five-star passer who was hand-selected by Harbaugh as a potentially program-changing commit. He nudged out incumbent starter Cade McNamara to take over a Big Ten title squad in 2022, and led the Wolverines back to the College Football Playoff. As a second-year starter, Michigan expected a major leap from McCarthy. 

Statistically, McCarthy has arrived. In six games coached by Harbaugh this season, McCarthy's efficiency was off the charts. The junior completed 72.5% of his passes for 10.4 yards per attempt despite only throwing the ball 23 times per game. McCarthy's passes are responsible for 57% of Michigan's offense this season. Last year, only 48% of Michigan's offense came through the air. 

Michigan's rushing offense still ranks among the best in the nation but has taken a notable step back in 2023. Last season, Michigan posted a top-five unit with nearly 240 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry. The Wolverines enter Ohio State week at No. 49 nationally at 171 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. Granted, there has been a concerted effort to save star running back Blake Corum for the biggest games, but he's still sitting at just 4.4 yards per carry over the past two games. 

The Wolverines statistically rank higher in success rate and expected points added per pass than in similar rushing categories. Michigan has only produced a 100-yard rusher twice in 11 games. Last season, Michigan produced a 100-yard rusher 11 times in 14 games. 

However, that has made McCarthy's struggles stick out further. In the second half against Maryland, McCarthy went just 1 of 3 for 7 yards and zero conversions on third down. Against Penn State, McCarthy only dropped back on three of Michigan's 13 third-down situations. He was sacked once, threw an incomplete and one 19-yard pass for a conversion. After that, McCarthy did not drop back to throw again on the 10 remaining third downs despite facing nearly third-and-6 on average. 

Offensive coordinator Sherrone Moore calls plays whether or not Harbaugh is on the sidelines. However, it's hard to ignore how McCarthy has performed during his stint as interim coach in Harbaugh's absence. 

Running the ball has been a way for Michigan to lower the variance and play safe with an interim coach. However, the Wolverines have not performed at an elite level when they can't rely on McCarthy; Michigan has scored just 22 offensive points per game over the last two matchups, while in nine previous games, the Wolverines posted nearly 40 points per game.

Key chess match

Ohio State hired defensive coordinator Jim Knowles to solve the Michigan problem. He failed his first test in 2022, giving up more than 252 yards rushing and three touchdowns to a Corum-less Michigan squad. McCarthy was the gamebreaker, throwing three touchdown passes of a combined 189 yards. 

Ohio State's defense is much scarier in 2023, the second year of the Knowles era. The Buckeyes lead the nation in passing defense, allowing just 4.7 yards per attempt and 144.4 yards per game. Their 3.99 yards-per-play allowed mark also leads the nation, edging out three other Big Ten teams, including Michigan at No. 4. 

The stifling defense only puts more focus on McCarthy, who still grades as one of the most efficient quarterbacks in college football. The junior rates as the 12th-best passer in football, per Pro Football Focus. He has completed 63% of his passes beyond 10 yards. Chucking the ball forces Ohio State's three-safety shell to stay out of the box and opens up the running game. 

Adding even more pressure to the passing game, Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom is out for the game with a left leg injury. With Ransom sidelined, true freshman Malik Hartford has taken over Ransom's role in the defensive backfield, giving McCarthy a key matchup to test. 

It's worth noting McCarthy has been dealing with a nagging injury against since Penn State; he has been hit more over the last two games than the rest of the season. However, Ohio State's defensive line duo of Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau won't provide him much respite. 

In many ways, this is one of the most pivotal versions of Ohio State-Michigan in history. The rivalry pulls together a pair of national championship contenders in a game that will have long-term implications for these programs. Ohio State cannot afford to lose three in a row to its northern neighbors. Michigan boasts perhaps its best team since 1997 with a potentially NFL-bound quarterback. 

The Buckeyes have spent the last two years trying to build their way up in the trenches defensively to reach Michigan's level. If the Wolverines want to retain their advantage over the rival Buckeyes, the dynamic McCarthy has to do his part.