Position review: Quarterbacks

Tuesday, January 29, 2019 - 9:50pm

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson posted 2,600 yards, with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2018.

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson posted 2,600 yards, with 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 2018. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

With the Michigan football team’s 2018 regular season in the books, The Daily looks back at the performance of each unit this year and peers ahead to the future in 2019. In this edition: quarterbacks

Coming off a 2017 season handicapped by poor quarterback play — one which ended with John O’Korn in tears at the podium after the Ohio State game — even average quarterback play would have sufficed. 

In 2018, Shea Patterson cleared that low bar with room to spare. 

Patterson threw for 2,600 yards, the highest total since Jake Rudock in 2015. He threw for 22 touchdowns, the most since Chad Henne also posted 22 in 2006. His touchdown to interception ratio — 22-to-7 — was the best since Drew Henson’s in 2000. 

There’s a very real case for it being the best season from a Michigan quarterback this decade. In fact, it might not even warrant an argument.

Whether that surpassed the massive expectations planted on Patterson after his transfer from Ole Miss is subject to personal evaluation. He did not merit All-Big Ten or All-American selection. He was no “savior of the program,” as some optimistically posited. But one thing is clear: With Patterson at the helm heading into 2019, the Wolverines are as comfortable at quarterback as they’ve been in quite some time.

HIGH POINT: The Michigan offense got the ball back in the middle of the fourth quarter with a four-point deficit and a quarterback oozing confidence.

Just hours earlier, Northwestern had jumped out to a 17-0 lead in the first half, threatening to derail the Wolverines’ season before it even took flight. With one loss already under their belt, a loss to the Wildcats would have effectively served as a death knell.

Slowly but surely, Patterson helped awaken Michigan’s offense from its prior doldrums. Then he orchestrated a decisive 11-play, 67-yard drive in 5:59 to grab a 20-17 lead that would soon become final.

On the drive, Patterson showed the tools that made him effective all year. He rushed for nine yards into Northwestern territory on a key 3rd-and-6. Then, two plays later, he rifled a missile to the back shoulder of tight end Zach Gentry, sending Gentry lumbering down to the six-yard line.

Above all, he showed the moxie to carry the sputtering Wolverines out of Evanston with a win when the alternative seemed inevitable all evening.

“I just know there’s something about him,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich after the game. “I saw it the very first time we had met. He was a major factor in me coming back because there’s just an aura about him. … He’s a football player.

“But something about Shea is special. People can see it. Being on the team with him, you can feel it.”

LOW POINT: Somewhere between the first interception and the second interception, Michigan viscerally lost hope.

Much of what derailed in the Peach Bowl was out of Patterson’s control. Florida rushed 40 times for 257 yards, eviscerating the porous, under-manned Wolverines defense. Michigan’s leading rusher in the game, Christian Turner, totaled just 32 yards.

But a stinging 41-15 defeat falls in part at the feet of its leaders — and Patterson earned his share of the blame. For him, the game represented an opportunity to move past the debacle at Ohio State. He had a chance, playing without many of the departing stars, to usher in optimism for the year ahead with his play and his demeanor. A chance, in short, to lead.

Patterson’s sloppy play did nothing of the sort. 

The junior quarterback ended the day with middling statistics — 236 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on a season-high 36 attempts. In the first quarter, he guided the lone touchdown drive with three pinpoint throws, including a back-shoulder pass to Donovan Peoples-Jones for a score.

It was that ease which made the ensuing stagnation all the more frustrating.

Early in the first half, Patterson tried to throw a deep post-route to Nico Collins. Underthrown and misread, Patterson's pass fell easily into the arms of Florida safety Chancey Gardner-Johnson, symbolically turning the tide of the game. From there, the Gators scored 28 of the game’s final 33 points, including a 30-yard Gardner-Johnson pick-six to twist the knife already entrenched in the Wolverines’ back.

Patterson doesn’t assume all the fault for the loss, of course. And the loss, in a vacuum, changes little about the overall outlook of Michigan’s season, one congruent with the ethos of Michigan football these days: just good enough to tantalize, not good enough to win anything meaningful.

But the Peach Bowl was Patterson’s to seize. Having already announced his return, Patterson held the trajectory of the program and the present mentality of the team. The ambivalent performance did nothing to satisfy either.

THE FUTURE: In terms of present upside and future depth, Michigan’s quarterback room is in as good a position as it’s been in over a decade. While Patterson enters next season as the presumed incumbent, Joe Milton and Dylan McCaffrey both offer future starting quarterback potential. 

McCaffrey showed brief glimpses of that potential in 2018. He completed 4-of-6 passes and, anecdotally, looked comfortable in relief duty at Notre Dame. He rushed for a 44-yard touchdown against Wisconsin and had an 80-yard rush called back on a holding call against Nebraska. In a mop-up appearance against Penn State, though, McCaffrey injured his collarbone and was out for the remainder of the year.

For Milton, the hype remains just that — largely centered around whispers of practice feats here and there and one 60-yard missile against Ohio State. He didn’t clear the four-game threshold, remaining eligible for a redshirt if he and the coaching staff so choose.

With Patterson in tow, and highly-regarded new coach Josh Gattis in control of the offense, there’s reason for tepid optimism ahead of 2019. Amid an offense returning most of its core, the quarterback position represents one of the team’s biggest strengths.