SportsMonday Column: A gunslinger comes to town

Sunday, September 9, 2018 - 7:33pm

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson went 12-for-17 in passing with three touchdowns against Western Michigan on Saturday.

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson went 12-for-17 in passing with three touchdowns against Western Michigan on Saturday. Buy this photo
Amelia Cacchione/Daily

A gunslinger walked into Michigan Stadium on Saturday afternoon, and no, it wasn’t Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink.

After nine months, Shea Patterson played his first game at home. And if you’re a Michigan football fan, the wait was well worth it.

Patterson, of course, went up against a team some would politely describe as a ‘tomato can.’ His overall numbers — 12-of-17 passing, 125 yards, 3 touchdowns — weren’t amazing.

Who the hell cares? There are three throws I want to bring to your attention. You can go watch them on YouTube again, if you need any refreshing.  

1st quarter, 10:14: Patterson rolls to his left off of play-action. Tight end in the flats is covered. Patterson keeps running. And running. Then he twists, throws across his body — and finds Oliver Martin on the sideline.

2nd quarter, 2:09: Patterson rolls to his right this time. Within seconds, he’s already more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. A Western Michigan defender dives and misses. Patterson continues to roll right … he brings his left arm in the air for an instant, as if he’s directing traffic … and then he uncorks a dart to Donovan Peoples-Jones, who is more than 20 yards upfield on the right sideline.

3rd quarter, 6:26: 3rd-and-goal, Patterson working out of the shotgun, looks, still looking, off his first read now, then he tosses the ball to the corner, where ...

Okay. Let me stop you there. At that moment, how many of you assumed, based on the past year of throws out of bounds … throws sailing out of the back of the end zone ... throws that had no chance of finding a receiver … that Patterson was going to find Peoples-Jones for a touchdown?

How many of you thought, as you watched Patterson bring his arm forward, that the ball was going to be caught?

I mean, I didn’t.

Jim Harbaugh told the story behind the play after the game. Michigan thought it had the right play called. The primary read was Nico Collins, who ran a slant from the outside receiver position on the boundary. Harbaugh thought that was where the ball would go. Then he saw a Western Michigan linebacker drop into that space.

Patterson saw that, too.

“For him to calculate that, and then change the channel — if I was playing quarterback, that’s where I’d have been going with the ball, reading the initial coverage,” Harbaugh said. “To change the channel and go to the corner, and throw it to Donovan, (to) make that split-second decision and then make that accurate of a throw, you’re really seeing things well.”

Last week, Patterson saw things well against the Fighting Irish, too, only sometimes that meant he saw three Notre Dame defensive linemen running straight at him. A quarterback can’t be expected to do everything by himself for an entire game. He needs his receivers to catch the ball, his offensive line to block and his coaching staff to put him in a position to succeed.

But sometimes, even when some of those things go wrong — let’s say the receivers can’t get open, or the offensive line doesn’t protect the pocket for long enough, or the play called doesn’t work as intended — a good quarterback can make things look okay. He can roll out, to his left or to his right, and buy some time for his receivers to work their way back to the ball before hitting them in the tightest of windows on the sideline. He can look off his first read when a linebacker drops into the space where the ball is supposed to be delivered, and throw a perfectly-placed ball that would make Jon Gruden swoon.

The third touchdown, the one to Peoples-Jones, was the type of throw I could see Patterson making all the way back in December, when he first announced his transfer to Michigan. I wrote a column about him then, too.

Some of it hasn’t aged well — “There’s no squinting required to predict a season that ends with Michigan’s first appearance in the College Football Playoff.”

Well, that was before I saw the offensive line at Notre Dame.

Some of it has aged better — “Shea Patterson doesn’t project to be good. He is good.”

Michigan’s quarterbacks combined for nine touchdowns all of last season. Patterson threw for three in the first three quarters against the Broncos. 

And then, of course, there’s the headline: “Patterson would be difference-maker at Michigan.”

Shea Patterson would be a difference-maker at a lot of schools. He already is a difference-maker at Michigan. Would anyone disagree?