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Wojo: Michigan and McCarthy unfazed, pass Iowa road test


This wasn’t about scoreboard points, or style points. This was about patience and poise and passing a test.

Michigan did what it had to do and showed what it had to show. More power running from Blake Corum. Revived pass-rush pressure from the defense. And perhaps most important, steady growth from sophomore quarterback J.J. McCarthy.

The Wolverines didn’t light things up against Iowa, but when they had to, they shut things down. Against the one-dimensional Hawkeyes (all defense, nary a speck of offense) on the road, it was enough. By the end, it was more than enough, as No. 4 Michigan powered past Iowa, 27-14, at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

In college football these days, you take what’s given and offer no apologies. Five of the past six top-five teams to visit Iowa left with a loss, including Michigan in 2016. The Wolverines (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) weren’t interested in unveiling anything flashy, not against a team that slows the game, bides its time and pounces on mistakes. And oh by the way, Iowa came in with the No. 1 scoring defense in the country.

Some of Michigan’s stat lines were impressive, including a 236-91 yardage advantage in the first half while carving a 13-0 lead. Corum rushed for 133 yards and another touchdown, a 20-yard scamper with 1:19 left to clinch it. With 611 yards and a nation-leading 10 touchdowns, Corum has popped into the Heisman talk, not that it matters at the moment.

For Michigan’s first road game in a haunting venue, this is the number that mattered: 0.

The only way the Hawkeyes were going to have a shot against the Wolverines — who destroyed Iowa, 42-3, in the Big Ten championship game last season — was to force turnovers, and they forced none. McCarthy resisted the temptation to test his full arsenal, took few chances and made one spectacular play. Rolling to his right on third-and-7 from Iowa’s 12 in the third quarter, he threw on the run to the back of the end zone, where Donovan Edwards cradled the ball for a touchdown. That made it 20-0, and while Michigan’s conservative play the rest of the way might aggravate some, it worked here.

It won’t work everywhere against every opponent, but when you break down Michigan’s schedule, and see McCarthy’s athleticism and composure, you see huge opportunities for another special season. He was 18-for-24 for 155 yards with one touchdown and only one sack. In five games, he’s completed 78% of his passes with six touchdowns and zero interceptions. It was easy to ignore the numbers piled up against weak competition, but Iowa’s defense is legit, and McCarthy handled it expertly.

He fumbled a couple times last game and Jim Harbaugh harped on the importance of ball security. McCarthy applied the lesson quickly.

“I just felt like I learned a lot from last week,” McCarthy said. “There were a lot of immature mistakes, and coach did a great job of coaching me up. … Just being able to improve is those situations of decision-making, and not making those big mistakes.”

Harbaugh admitted it’s difficult at times to rein in raw, rambunctious talent, but he gushed about McCarthy’s cool response. And then McCarthy gushed about his running backs, receivers and offensive line, which was mostly dominant.

“It’s amazing, and just shows how dangerous we are as a unit,” McCarthy said on the postgame radio broadcast. “We can go on the ground with it, run for 200, 300 yards, but we also can go through the air with it, throw for 300, 400. We have yet to do that, but the guys are hungry, chomping at the bit to get the air raid going. I’m so happy to be part of this offense.”

More: Harbaugh sees glimpse of himself in McCarthy's play in Michigan win over Iowa

'We stepped up to the plate'

There’s still a wide-eyed giddiness about McCarthy, which belies his hard-edged competitiveness. His only major mistake was a fumble when hit while throwing. Edwards recovered at UM’s 3-yard line, but it set up Iowa’s first touchdown. The Hawkeyes had a chance to really make the Wolverines squirm, but on fourth-and-2 from UM’s 6 with 5:41 left, Spencer Petras threw an incompletion. On Iowa’s next-to-last drive, Petras was helpless and sacked twice.

Kirk Ferentz has a solid program that’s consistently awful on offense, tough on defense. When the desperate Hawkeyes were forced to throw in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s defense thumped back, and finished with four sacks (two by Mike Morris). It’s fair to wonder if the Wolverines can come close to generating the pressure that Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo brought last season. This was a fair response, for one game at least.

“I told them at halftime they’re gonna throw everything they have at us, everything out of their bag,” said Morris, who has four sacks on the season. “We took the punches, they punched us twice actually, and we stepped up to the plate. Big-time players make big-time plays.”

In low-scoring slogs like this, big-time plays can come at any time, even on the first drive of the game. Michigan rolled 75 yards in 11 plays, ending with Ronnie Bell’s 16-yard touchdown on a reverse, and the Hawkeyes (and the crowd) were immediately stifled.

“Very impressive drive,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought the game was very impressive all around, all phases.”

Eventually, McCarthy will have to zero in on his deep throws and produce explosive plays with his array of speedy receivers. This wasn’t the place or the time to unleash it. When you have an offensive line as strong as Michigan’s, and a pair of powerful backs in Corum and Edwards, and an excellent tight end in Luke Schoonmaker, you don’t take risks against a top defense. You take what’s there.

The time for risk will be here soon enough, with Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State ahead. This was McCarthy’s first road start, and truthfully, his first chance to display the poise and efficiency that made Cade McNamara a Big Ten-winning quarterback. Harbaugh kept him on low throttle, and Michigan’s longest gain all day was Corum’s late 20-yard run.

The hard work was done early, on the first drive, and even earlier. Before the game, the Wolverines waved pink towels on the sideline, sending the message they weren’t intimidated by Kinnick Stadium’s lore, right down to the famous pink visitor’s locker room.

“It let them know that we don't care,” McCarthy said. “Pink locker room, bring it out to the field. Doesn't matter. Didn't faze us."

Unfazed and undazed. The young quarterback did what he was asked to do, threw a bit and grew a lot. Nothing flashy or forced, just enough. For now.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski