ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s funny, now, to consider the last time Shea Patterson played Alabama.
Patterson spent the entire game in the shotgun. He showed flashes — rolling right and hitting a go route for a 35-yard gain with five minutes to go in the first quarter. He ran option after option — in the two years since, he’s played in an offense that mostly ditched them, then in another mostly predicated on them.
In that game, Ole Miss’ offensive line couldn’t do anything about an Alabama front seven filled with future NFL talent. Patterson’s footwork fell apart in the face of pressure. He threw a pick-six, and another interception. His team lost, 66-3.
“It didn’t exactly go my way,” Patterson said Sunday.
The most obvious change since then has come in attire. On Wednesday, Patterson will play what is most likely his last game in college, against Alabama, for Michigan. In the face of struggles and disappointing losses this year — and in the face of an NFL draft stock that hasn’t improved the way most envisioned when he made the decision to transfer — Patterson has remained steadfast in saying that decision is the best he’s ever made.
Asked about how his game has evolved since that matchup with the Crimson Tide two years ago, Patterson never got to specifics.
“Yeah. Completely different,” the senior quarterback said. “I was watching film (of) my freshman and sophomore year and it’s just — I mean, it’s completely different and …”
He trailed off. Josh Gattis, his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years, stepped in.
“I’ll go to battle with this guy any day of the week. This is Sugar Shea Patterson right here.
“Just to see his confidence throughout the year continue to rise each and every week, his preparation, his performance. Obviously, statistically he did some pretty amazing things throughout the year as far as a number of 300-yard passing games. But I think there was some adversity that we faced offensively. And I think Shea is one of the leaders and Ben (Bredeson) is one of the leaders that really took ownership of it.”
Statistically, it’s hard to argue that Patterson isn’t the best passer Michigan has had in the last 10 years. He threw for 2,828 yards this season with 22 touchdowns to six interceptions, even with an early season full of growing pains in Gattis’ offense, even with injuries hampering him through that same portion of the year. He might even have a chance of leading the Wolverines to a win over Alabama.
“They’re going to run the quarterback,” Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding said. “So, obviously, your structure on defense, you’ve got to be able to account for the quarterback and the run game. And I think on third down, (Patterson) does a really nice job of extending plays. So when things break down in the back end, they’ve got guys covered, he can step up or out. And he does a really nice job, based on the coverage, whether he’s going to scramble at the back stretch in a two-man principle or he does a nice job in the zone of keeping his eyes downfield.”
And yet, it’s hard not to instinctively define Patterson’s tenure by what he didn’t do: Beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten, make the College Football Playoff. Just after the Buckeyes scored to make it 49-27 in this year’s game, an announcement came into the Michigan Stadium press box: Patterson had the best three-game passing stretch in Michigan history, eventually finishing with 1,055 yards. That dichotomy characterizes Patterson’s time in Ann Arbor.
As for Wednesday, there’s only so much a Citrus Bowl can do to change that. Even against Alabama.