SportsMonday Column: Patterson needs backup

Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 9:27pm

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has proven he is the most talented quarterback of coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure.

Junior quarterback Shea Patterson has proven he is the most talented quarterback of coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/Daily

Shea Patterson has played even better than the most optimistic Michigan fans could have expected.

Saturday’s 45-20 win over SMU was the most recent example. And yes, it’s only a three-game sample, but the consistency and prolificity with which Patterson has played in those three games is something that hasn’t been seen in Ann Arbor since … maybe Denard Robinson, but probably Chad Henne.

It’s certainly the best quarterback play Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has had in his tenure.

“Accuracy, really. His reads feel really good, he’s making really good decisions,” Harbaugh said after the game. “… He’s getting out of trouble and creating plays when sometimes there isn’t one to be there. Just playing really — playing the position really well. And then making the throws when they present themselves. He’s hitting the short ones, he’s hitting the intermediate ones, he’s hitting the deep ones. Good quarterback play.”

Strong quarterback play is something that Michigan has been searching for since Harbaugh has arrived in Ann Arbor. Jake Rudock showed flashes in 2015, but the supporting cast around him wasn’t ready, and Rudock didn’t have the physical talent Patterson has.

The last two seasons, Wilton Speight, Brandon Peters and John O’Korn were surrounded by elite athletes, but couldn’t put it all together to lead the Wolverines to the promised land.

Patterson is that quarterback. The throws that were missed in past losses, like the ones against Iowa in 2016 or to Michigan State and Ohio State in 2017 — he can make those. We’ve already seen it.

Patterson is now 46-for-65 for 589 passing yards and six touchdowns this season, including three touchdowns each in the last two games. Michigan hadn’t thrown three touchdowns in a game since Nov. 5, 2016, against Maryland. Last season’s team didn’t have six passing touchdowns until the ninth game of the season.

“We’ve had Jake Rudock here, and there’s problems that are beyond the scope of a quarterback, but in terms of how our offense efficiently played and how Shea looked, I’d say it’s as good as any quarterback I’ve seen here,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich after the Wolverines’ win over Western Michigan two weeks ago. “It was weird being on the sideline and them just scoring touchdowns. I remember (junior safety) Josh Metellus … he goes, I just remember him sitting there looking, he’s like ‘Man, this is nice!’ I think the feeling is mutual from my half.”

It’s ironic, then, that now that Michigan and Harbaugh finally have the quarterback who can make all the throws, question marks have popped up around the rest of the roster.

It isn’t the offensive line, though they have struggled, because that position has been a trouble area for at least the last two seasons.

What is different is that the defense that made Michigan a force to be reckoned with in the Harbaugh era has looked vulnerable at times.

The things that put the Wolverines in a hole against Notre Dame popped up again Saturday. There were penalties and missed assignments that, against a better team, might be a death sentence. Heck, if it was last year’s offense that was on the field against the Mustangs, the defensive lapses might have been a death sentence, too.

But it wasn’t, because Patterson made play after play and throw after throw. Michigan, for the second week in a row, scored more points than it scored in any game last season.

SMU’s first touchdown came when the Wolverines miscommunicated in coverage, and wide receiver James Proche ran wide open up the sideline for a 50-yard pitch and catch. On the next drive, Patterson drove Michigan right back down the field, 60 yards in five plays. He capped it off with a 35-yard toss to sophomore wide receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones.

It wasn’t a hard throw, as Peoples-Jones was wide open, but in the past year or so, even the easy throws couldn’t be taken for granted.

“The thing about Shea is that he just has such a sense of confidence that doesn’t come off as cocky, but you just know and he knows — this is my opinion about it — that he’s the man,” Winovich said last week. “He’s the man for the job, and he can get the job done. I think for him, it was just another day at the office.”

I think I have written this part in every one of my columns, but I do feel it’s appropriate to repeat when being critical this early in the season. It would be misguided to say that there are problems that will not be fixed, or at least patched up enough to win any game moving forward — especially for a team with this talent.  

But if the rest of the Wolverines don’t solidify themselves, this season might feel like a huge missed opportunity. Because Shea Patterson is the quarterback Michigan has wanted. It would be a shame to let that go to waste.