J.J. McCarthy grew up dreaming of playing for Ohio State. The Buckeyes chose Kyle McCord instead.
McCarthy was the fifth-ranked quarterback in the 2021 recruiting class while McCord was the sixth-ranked quarterback in the cycle, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, but the Buckeyes chose McCord over McCarthy when they accepted his commitment in April 2019. McCarthy committed to Michigan less than two weeks later.
This week’s game between Ohio State and Michigan will test whether Ryan Day and the Buckeyes made the right choice.
McCarthy, who still admits he grew up rooting for the Buckeyes, already got a dose of revenge against Ohio State last year when he threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Wolverines to a 45-23 win over the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium. This year, he’ll be going head-to-head with his recruiting classmate for the first time as McCord makes his first start in The Game after backing up C.J. Stroud for the last two seasons.
Based on what McCarthy has accomplished so far since becoming Michigan’s starter last year, the Wolverines have reason to feel fortunate that their southern rivals let him go north. McCarthy is 23-1 as Michigan’s starting quarterback, having completed 68.5% of his passes for 5,054 yards and 40 touchdowns with only nine interceptions dating back to the start of last season. McCarthy has also contributed 470 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in that time.
But the Buckeyes will have no reason to regret their choice if McCord can lead them to a victory this Saturday.
While McCord hasn’t been as prolific a passer this season as Stroud was before him, he’s thrown for 564 more yards (2,899 to 2,335) and four more touchdowns (22 to 18) with the same number of interceptions (four each) as McCarthy this season. McCarthy has had a higher completion percentage (73.8 to 66.4) and more passing yards per attempt (9.9 to 9.1), and he doesn’t have the benefit of throwing to Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka. But McCord has been the better quarterback leading up to The Game, throwing for 547 yards and five touchdowns over the past two weeks while McCarthy has just 201 total passing yards with zero touchdowns and an interception over Michigan’s past two games.
Despite the hatred between their two programs, McCord and McCarthy hold each other in high regard. They became close during the recruiting process as they attempted many of the same camps together, and they had nothing but good things to say when asked about one another this week.
“Kyle’s my guy,” McCarthy said. “We were always (at the camps) together. And we just kind of meshed, had two alike personalities, and just, it's gonna be really cool. It's gonna be really surreal to see him out there in this environment, this game, and just going out there and wish him safety and make sure he stays healthy. He's gonna give our defense a little bit of, some trouble at times, and we got to respond and be able to attack him in any way possible.”
McCord said he isn’t worried about trying to prove Day right for picking him over McCarthy; he just wants to lead Ohio State to a win.
“The biggest thing for me is just winning this game by any means necessary,” McCord said. “Obviously, that was a little bit of a story when we were both getting recruited. But I think once we both stepped on campus, I think those recruiting stories kind of fade out. And I think the product you put on the field matters most.”
While McCarthy has said he felt slighted by Ohio State’s decision to take McCord’s commitment, telling The Athletic shortly after his own commitment to Michigan that he felt Ohio State lied to him, Day was complimentary of McCarthy when asked about recruiting him on Tuesday.
“J.J. was always great, he was very respectful, he was a very competitive player, and I've got a lot of respect for him as a player, and as a person,” Day said. “During the recruiting cycle, you spend time with different people and different folks and you learn about people. And, again, all my interactions with he and his family were very classy.”
Day didn’t get into specifics about why Ohio State chose to take a commitment from McCord over McCarthy but did express full confidence in McCord’s ability to lead the Buckeyes to a victory in their most important game of the season.
“You see him executing plays, you see it in practice, and then it carries over to the field. And that's what you want,” Day said of McCord. “Now ultimately, we got to take care of the football and win the game, that's the bottom line here. And the good news is he’s got a great group around him, and he's been in these environments before, so a lot of things in his favor going into the game, but now he's gotta go put it on the field.”
McCord’s teammates, particularly the one who knows him best dating back to their days together at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, share Day’s confidence in their quarterback.
“I've been in a lot of big games and a lot of those games I played with him, so I kind of know where his mind space is. And just the confidence he's gonna go in there with,” Harrison said. “He's one of the most confident guys I've ever been around. So when he trusts himself, we obviously have a lot of trust in him to go out there and make the plays. So there’s not another person I would want to go into battle with.”
“He’s got a great group around him, and he's been in these environments before, so a lot of things in his favor going into the game, but now he's gotta go put it on the field.”– Ryan Day on Kyle McCord
That said, the Buckeyes know they also have to be prepared for a challenge from McCarthy, whose ability to make plays as both a passer and a runner makes him the most dynamic dual-threat they’ve faced all season.
“He's really creative, and he can make something out of nothing. So our goal is to just contain him as much as possible, and not allow him to make crazy plays as he makes,” said Ohio State linebacker Cody Simon. “He's a good player, so we just have to do our best and contain him.”
For better or for worse, McCord’s first season as Ohio State’s starting quarterback will likely be defined most by how he plays against Michigan. If McCord leads Ohio State to a victory against Michigan’s top-ranked defense, he’ll be remembered as the quarterback who helped swing the rivalry back in the Buckeyes’ favor. If McCord struggles and makes mistakes that lead to an Ohio State loss, plenty of Buckeye fans will be wondering if Ohio State made the right choice, especially if McCarthy performs well against Ohio State again.
McCord’s trying not to think about any of that as he prepares for his first start against the Wolverines.
“Obviously the implications on this game are huge. But at the end of the day, it's just a football game. And so just doing everything I can to help my team win,” McCord said. “There's a lot of noise around it, there's a lot of hype around it and rightfully so, but I think the biggest thing is just focusing in on what's important and that's watching the film, doing the small things during the week, focusing on the details, to give yourself the best chance to go out there and succeed.”