Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh explains decision to play J.J. McCarthy over Cade McNamara in game-changing fumble vs. MSU

No. 6 Michigan committed several critical errors in its loss at No. 8 Michigan State on Saturday. The most scrutinized of those will be Jim Harbaugh’s decision to bring in freshman quarterback J.J. McCarthy for a play that ended in a game-changing fumble.

The play came at a critical juncture, with the Wolverines nursing a 33-30 lead midway through the fourth quarter; the defense had just forced a punt after giving up consecutive scoring drives that ended in successful 2-point conversions. The Michigan offense took over at its 45-yard line, needing only to score a touchdown on a short field — or at least eat some clock and pin the Spartans deep — to escape East Lansing with a win.

Instead, the Wolverines fumbled a handoff on the first play of the drive — McCarthy was credited with the turnover — giving Michigan State the ball at the Wolverines 41:

The Spartans drove the distance needed for a score in seven plays, twice converting third downs, to take a 37-33 lead off a 23-yard touchdown run by Kenneth Walker III. He finished the game with 197 yards — one more than quarterback Payton Thorne threw for — and five touchdowns.

BENDER: Michigan’s latest collapse against Spartans puts deserved heat back on Jim Harbaugh

Harbaugh had subbed McCarthy in for starter Cade McNamara throughout the game — he finished the day completing 3 of 4 passes for 23 yards and a touchdown — leading many to believe the substitution was part of the game plan. The move was roundly criticized in the moment, considering McNamara had played a great game to that point, completing 23 of 32 passes for 350 yards and two scores. (He finished completing 28 of 44 passes for 383 yards, two touchdowns and an interception).

McCarthy had fumbled the last play he was on the field minutes earlier. The ball rolled out of bounds before the Spartans could recover, and Michigan kicked a field goal to take the lead.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Harbaugh said the decision to play McCarthy was necessitated by an injury issue McNamara had. From Austin Meek of The Athletic:

That play wasn’t the only late mistake by Michigan in the game — just the most notable.

Indeed, the Wolverines had two more offensive drives to take the lead, but those ended with a turnover on downs and game-sealing interception, respectively. In all, Michigan was outscored 15-3 in the fourth quarter, and was only able to muster 101 yards of offense in the eventual loss.

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