Down six with the ball on the road in the Big House with a chance to win one of the biggest editions of the greatest rivalry in college football, Ohio State quarterback Kyle McCord had his offense moving. A few big passes to Marvin Harrison Jr. and Julian Fleming got the Buckeyes into Michigan territory with a chance to take the rivalry back in dramatic fashion. Every second ticking off the clock felt like a minute.
In those stomach-turning moments, one question was about to be answered: Did Ryan Day make the correct decision when he hand-picked his quarterback in one of his first moves as Ohio State’s coach?
Day has unequivocally been as good as or better than anyone else in the sport at picking and developing a quarterback. If there is one thing Ohio State is going to have on its team, it’s a future first-round NFL Draft pick running the offense.
Then McCord threw an interception. Michigan 30, Ohio State 24. Final.
The second Michigan defensive back Rod Moore hauled in the interception to seal the game, my brain took me back to Chicago in May 2019.
That’s when I visited J.J. McCarthy as a recruit after he had committed to Michigan. I met a blond kid — who still looked like a child — with a golden smile and enough confidence to look me square in the eye and say that Michigan would be a different place by the time he left.
Because he hated Ohio State after what Day and his staff did to him.
Why J.J. McCarthy hates Ohio State and how the future Michigan QB could change the rivalry
McCarthy grew up loving Ohio State and went to Columbus on visits as a recruit. But he felt as though Ohio State lied to him during the recruiting process after Day decided he preferred McCord.
“I get it’s a business,” McCarthy said back in his high school coach’s office over four years ago. “But it always sucks being lied to. And that’s kind of where the rivalry started for me, and the hatred. But what are you going to do? It’s a business and they have to do what they have to do. They lied to my face, but it’s all good now.”
Imagine how he feels now.
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— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) November 25, 2023
Michigan has won three games in a row against Ohio State, including the last two with McCarthy as the starter. He committed to Michigan during a time in which it was downright impossible to even fathom three straight Wolverines wins in this rivalry. He, like so many others in this series, has been fueled by hatred and disgust toward his enemy.
McCarthy was just a teenage boy at the time. He was joking about waiting for hair to grow under his armpits. Then he firmly and confidently expressed how he felt about Day.
These are the decisions in recruiting — in stories written in the month of May — a coach has to get right. It seems like a back-burner issue at the moment, but time and change surely, eventually, show.
McCarthy is a man now. He’s a future NFL Draft pick. He’s a winner.
Day? He has to come to terms with the notion he might have lost to Michigan for the third consecutive time because he was wrong in a decision he has been right in time and time again as the Buckeyes coach.
McCord’s story as Ohio State’s quarterback hasn’t been fully written. He led a game-winning drive on the road against Notre Dame earlier in the year and seemed ready to do it again on the biggest possible stage. But instead of being great, he threw a game-ending interception.
Maybe he’ll be the quarterback at Ohio State next year. Maybe he’ll get a win over Michigan next November. Or maybe Day will feel the need to go into the transfer portal and fix the evaluation error he made.
McCord wasn’t terrible in this game. But he threw a mind-numbing interception in the first quarter that led to a Michigan touchdown and threw a tough interception in the fourth quarter that ended the game. In between, there were flashes of excellence and flashes of times when it felt like the Buckeyes couldn’t complete a pass. With Harrison on your team, that can’t happen.
Day looked to be in pure anguish as the final seconds ticked off the clock. I cannot fathom what he felt at that moment. But when you sign up to be Ohio State’s coach, you do so with the understanding that you’re judged solely by how things go in this game.
Things have been going terribly.
You can rip him apart for playing for a 52-yard field goal before the half or for calling a more conservative game than he would have if the opponent were Maryland or Minnesota. You can also get on him for hiring a $2 million coordinator who assembled a great defense statistically all year but got mowed over in the game’s final minutes when a stop mattered the most.
What Ohio State fans probably didn’t envision was being upset with Day because of quarterback play and/or recruiting. That has been his saving grace.
McCarthy isn’t Patrick Mahomes. It’s not like he’s the greatest quarterback who has ever lived. But he went 16-for-20 for 148 yards and had a beautifully placed touchdown pass between two defenders in the second quarter.
Pick him apart all you want — and some of it is warranted — but he won the football game.
This final quote from McCarthy from that May day in 2019 still stands out to me.
“I used to love them,” he said of Ohio State. “Now I want to kill them.”
You did, J.J.
(Photo of J.J. McCarthy: Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)