SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In the hours before his team throttled Purdue to capture its second consecutive Big Ten title, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh passed the time by watching an epic clash between Texas Christian and Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship.
Harbaugh found himself transfixed by the redheaded wunderkind playing quarterback for the Horned Frogs, and each additional scrape to Max Duggan’s already bloodied knees, each wheezing run that left him doubled over in pain, further endeared the eventual Heisman Trophy finalist to one of the sport’s most ardent purists. It’s difficult to imagine Harbaugh, a grizzled former signal-caller himself, loving anything more than an undersized, underappreciated quarterback throwing for 251 yards, rushing for 110 more, and pushing himself to the absolute limit with a trail of DNA in his wake.
“I can’t tell you what a joy and a pleasure it was to watch him compete in the game on Saturday,” Harbaugh told reporters on a Zoom call the following afternoon, shortly after the College Football Playoff selection committee paired the Wolverines with TCU in the national semifinals. “Nothing but tremendous respect for the type of competitor that he is. And it’s going to be a huge challenge getting ready for a quarterback like that. All I have seen is just a relentless competitor, super talented, tremendous effort. I mean, any quarterback in the history of the game would have loved to have a game like he had on Saturday and had that on their résumé.”
Harbaugh’s lavish praise was noteworthy for both its applicability to the Fiesta Bowl (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET), which pits Duggan’s unyielding tenacity against one of the best defenses in the country, and its familiarity to those who closely follow Michigan football. The adulatory reverence with which Harbaugh described Duggan bore a strong resemblance to his appreciation for another unheralded, will-over-skill quarterback whose contributions played a significant role in overhauling the program’s culture in 2021: Cade McNamara, possessor of an effective blend of grit, perseverance, selflessness and leadership that propelled the Wolverines to a season that will be remembered for generations — even if he couldn’t match Duggan’s remarkable statistics.
A year later, McNamara’s absence hangs over Michigan like an unacknowledged fog as his former teammates aim to surpass the benchmark he set in guiding the Wolverines to their first conference title in 17 years and first-ever CFP appearance. McNamara lost a quarterback competition with former five-star prospect J.J. McCarthy in early September and suffered what proved to be a season-ending knee injury against Connecticut in Week 3. The decision to undergo surgery in Los Angeles, where noted orthopedic Neal ElAttrache — the team physician for the Rams and Dodgers — performed the operation, further isolated McNamara from his teammates. He entered the transfer portal in late November, committed to Iowa shortly thereafter, and is no longer considered part of the Michigan program, according to a team spokesman.
One of the most important Wolverines in recent memory seemed to vanish in an instant.
“Cade was a great leader, brought us together,” said left tackle Ryan Hayes, who remains close with McNamara, in an interview with FOX Sports. “He was exactly what we needed last year. And this year, J.J. has stepped in as a great leader: cool, calm and collected. Obviously a little different leading styles, but both know how to lead an offense, know how to stay calm and collected, and they’ve both just done a really great job doing that.
“It was time for Cade to move on. We love Cade. We know he wasn’t quitting on our team. We still talk to him. No one on this team has a bad feeling towards Cade. We love the guy. I just think he needed a new chance. And we’re all excited for him. We’re all rooting for him.”
There were many who wondered if Duggan would, or should, pull the same escape valve after finishing second to Chandler Morris in a quarterback competition earlier this year. Duggan had appeared in 32 games across his first three seasons in Fort Worth, but the Horned Frogs won just 16 of 34 games during that stretch. Former head coach Gary Patterson, who earlier in his career had overseen some of the best seasons in program history, resigned partway through the 2021 campaign to create the opening that was eventually filled by current coach Sonny Dykes.
The disappointing end to Patterson’s tenure further stained Duggan’s résumé as the starting quarterback. He threw for 5,920 yards and 41 touchdowns from 2019-21, but also tossed 20 interceptions and failed to string together more than three consecutive wins as the Horned Frogs finished below .500 twice. Duggan’s unevenness subjected him to the kind of criticism McNamara experienced in Ann Arbor, where an increasing percentage of fans yearned for the highly touted McCarthy to assume the No. 1 spot on the depth chart entering 2022.
“When I came here,” said TCU linebacker Johnny Hodges, “I would notice how a lot of the fans and stuff were almost at (Duggan’s) throat calling for his head, ready for him to be done, calling for other quarterbacks to play, just trying to see something new. I think that was a big reason why he didn’t start at the beginning of (this season), just because of the fan base. And just seeing him push all that to the side and grow as a person, and obviously as a football player, now everybody loves him.”
Despite losing the starting job in fall camp, Duggan said the idea of transferring never entered his mind. He’d grown to enjoy the Fort Worth community and wanted to fulfill his commitment of playing four years and graduating from TCU. Duggan also told reporters he believed in the way Dykes was rebuilding the program and informed his new coach he’d stick around to become the best backup and teammate he could.
That was the response Harbaugh expected from either McNamara or McCarthy shortly before choosing his own starter for this season. Harbaugh told reporters in late August that his quarterbacks “are both the kind of guys that don’t flinch, fold or quit at the slightest whiff of adverse circumstances or something that doesn’t go their way. That’s not Cade McNamara; that’s not J.J. McCarthy.” He was adamant that potentially losing one of them to another team wouldn’t influence his decision.
Four months later, it’s fair to wonder how Harbaugh reacted when McNamara entered the transfer portal and committed to another Big Ten program. McNamara, who redshirted earlier in his Michigan career, still has two years of eligibility should he choose to use them. Harbaugh has yet to comment on the departures of McNamara and starting tight end Erick All, who also left the Wolverines in favor of Iowa, since those decisions went public earlier this month. Neither player is with the team for the Fiesta Bowl.
“That’s a tough question,” co-offensive coordinator Matt Weiss said when asked what changed for McNamara as the season progressed. “I think you’d really have to ask Cade what ultimately went into that decision (to transfer). We were totally supportive of him and what he wanted to do. He had to get the surgery, and he wanted to get that done sooner rather than later so he could have more of an opportunity (to play) next year. We’re totally supportive of him doing what’s best for him.
“I think maybe if he didn’t have the injury, I think he would maybe be in a role where, yeah, if something happens (to McCarthy) he’d have a chance to win a national championship and be the hero.”
This is precisely where Duggan finds himself as the Fiesta Bowl approaches. A knee injury to Morris in the third quarter of TCU’s opener restored Duggan to the starting role he was so disappointed to lose and ignited one of the best seasons in program history — both for the Horned Frogs and their most valuable player.
Duggan enthralled fans with his intoxicating mixture of toughness, determination and big-play ability. He fueled an offense that ranked sixth nationally in scoring at 40.3 points per game and that produced more plays of 50-plus yards (19) than any team in college football. He threw for 3,321 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2022 while reducing his interceptions to four and chipping in more than 400 rushing yards and six additional scores on the ground. His list of accolades now includes the Davey O’Brien Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, a second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting and second-team All-American honors from three separate media outlets.
“He’s a great guy,” said Wolverines linebacker Junior Colson. “He makes great reads. He can kill us with his legs if we let him. He’s a warrior. He’s a fighter. You can tell, every time, especially if things get tough, he will put the team on his back and carry them.”
Just like McNamara did for Michigan last season.
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Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.
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