History Suggests That Michigan Must Make Big Change For Chance At Big Ten Championship

A perfect 4-0 start to the 2021 season hasn't been enough to calm the concerns of many within the Michigan football fan base.
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As the Wolverines dominated inferior opponents with the nations No. 1 rushing attack during the first three weeks, a pattern began to emerge that left some within the fan base feeling uneasy. While running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins racked up the yards and carries week after week, junior quarterback Cade McNamara's role was essentially reduced to little more than taking the snaps and handing the ball off.

In fact, McNamara's involvement in the offense was so limited through three weeks that the Michigan passing attack ranked dead last in the Big Ten conference and near the bottom in all of college football - joined only by the service academies. 

During a week two, primetime matchup against Washington, McNamara hit wide receiver Cornelius Johnson for a beautiful pass that went 33 yards. Outside of that, the junior QB went 6-of-14 for just 11 yards and zero touchdowns. Of course, the alarming lack of a passing attack was off-set by the fact that Corum and Haskins had combined for 343 yards and four touchdowns en route to a 31-10 win on the same night. 

Even for those who were concerned about McNamara's lack of participation in the offense, it was hard to complain when the Michigan rushing attack was averaging over 350 yards per game and looking pretty much unstoppable. With the combination of Corum and Haskins working so beautifully, even the harshest skeptics found themselves struggling to sound the alarm.

Then came Rutgers.

With Michigan entering Saturday's contest against the Scarlet Knights as a 20.5-point favorite, the Wolverines were expected to put on another dominant performance at home to open conference play. 

That obviously didn't happen. 

After entering the half with a comfortable 20-3 lead, the Wolverines eventually found themselves in a 20-13 game late in the fourth quarter with an offense that was dead in the water. To make matters worse, the once-potent rushing attack of Corum and Haskins looked completely overmatched against Rutgers' defensive front - rushing to a season low 112 yards combined.

As the 17-point lead dwindled down to just a one-possession game in the fourth quarter, it quickly became apparent that Harbaugh and Co. had no intention of going away from the rushing attack. In fact, the Wolverines attempted just five passes for one completion of seven yards in the entire second half of Saturday's close contest with Rutgers. 

Five attempts. One completion. Seven yards.

The close call against Rutgers highlighted what many within the Michigan fan base feared might be true — that there might be an issue with the passing attack in Ann Arbor. Sure, it may sound absurd to some, but how else do you explain what you saw on Saturday? How do you explain the fact that the starting quarterback for the University of Michigan had just three passing attempts in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game? Especially when the running game is not working. 

While looking over all of the numbers and putting this article together, I also noticed another alarming statistic. Through four weeks, as the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan, Cade McNamara now ranks 15th in the Big Ten in passing attempts.

There are only 14 teams in the Big Ten.

All of the talk surrounding McNamara's lack of production over the last four weeks got me thinking: what do the numbers look like for Big Ten quarterbacks who win Big Ten championships and how do those numbers compare to McNamara so far?

The results were pretty interesting.

Since 2011 - the first year of the Big Ten championship game - no starting quarterback in the Big Ten has ever won a conference championship averaging less than 22 attempts per game on the season. Additionally, all starting quarterbacks who have won a Big Ten title since 2011 averaged 27.7 attempts per game combined during the regular season. Cade McNamara is averaging just 13.

  • McNamara's Pace: 13 att/game (-9 att/game)
  • B10 Championship minimum: 22 att/game (R. Wilson, 2011)
  • B10 Championship avg: 27.7 att/game
  • B10 Championship high: 38 att/game (D. Haskins, 2018)

When it comes to passing yards, McNamara is also off-pace when it compared to Big Ten championship winning quarterbacks during that same span (2011-present). Over that stretch of time, no starting quarterback in the Big Ten has ever won a conference championship averaging less than 196 passing yards per game. Additionally, all starting quarterbacks who've won the conference championship since 2011 average 242.7 passing yards per game. 

  • McNamara's Pace: 133.5 ypg (-62.5 ypg)
  • B10 Championship minimum: 196 ypg (C. Cook, 2013)
  • B10 Championship avg: 242.7 ypg
  • B10 Championship high: 345 ypg (D. Haskins, 2018)

So, what do all of these numbers mean? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Some may say that numbers like this are irrelevant to what actually happens on the field during fall Saturdays. Others, like myself, look at numbers like this and draw the following conclusions:

  1. Recent history shows that a Big Ten championship requires a competent and productive passing attack. 
  2. At his current pace, Cade McNamara would become the least productive starting quarterback by a significant margin to win a conference championship since the inception of the Big Ten title game in 2011.
  3. In order for McNamara to finish the 2021 season averaging 22 passing attempts per game (to match the minimum pace set by Russell Wilson in 2011), he'll need increase his current average of 13 attempts per game to 25 attempts per game over the next eight games.

Put simply, it means that Wolverines need to start throwing the ball more if they hope to win a Big Ten championship in 2021.