Ben McDaniels stood in front of the media Wednesday afternoon, detailing the texture that a football takes on in cold weather and the impact that has on ball security.
Midway through, the quarterbacks coach offered an apology, realizing that the minutiae of a football’s texture isn’t high on the list of storylines surrounding Michigan football three days before the Michigan State game. Inside Schembechler Hall, though, it’s a strange juxtaposition to the scene just a few weeks ago, when ball security was the unavoidable topic of the month.
That was back when Shea Patterson fumbled five times and lost four in the season’s first three games. Now, six games removed from his last lost fumble, it’s a forgotten topic from a departed part of Michigan’s season — back when its offense couldn’t get going, with Patterson as the primary culprit.
“Ball handling’s improved a ton,” Patterson said. “Struggled a little bit early to keep the ball off the ground, but that was a big emphasis over the last four, five weeks.”
The correlation isn’t lost on the Wolverines.
“Not getting ourselves into bad situations, third-and-longs (has helped the turnaround),” Patterson said. “Just taking care of the football, and I think the run game’s really helped that out. It’s opened up the pass game a little bit, and our guys are really getting into open space.”
Back then — when Michigan nearly got shut out in a loss to Wisconsin and then scored just 10 points on Iowa two weeks later — the questions that encompassed the Wolverines’ offense were wholesale, with Patterson clearly hampered by a series of injuries.
What is this offense supposed to be? Why is it not utilizing its best weapons? Is Josh Gattis ready to be an offensive coordinator?
Four games, 146 points and three wins later, those questions are gone, largely replaced by conclusive answers.
This isn’t the Oklahoma-esque spread offense that many envisioned when Gattis was hired, and Patterson isn’t a dark-horse Heisman candidate. But there’s a coherent identity and Patterson looks comfortable in the offense, mixing in elements of Gattis’ modern concepts with Michigan’s old offense.
Holding onto the football has been a large part of that, helping Gattis install his promised run-pass option game.
“That’s a big part of our offense,” McDaniels said. “The mesh with the backs, giving it, pulling it, throwing it, it’s a huge part of the system. And (Patterson) does a good job of it.”
The biggest impact of Patterson’s improved ball security, though, can be found in the ground game. Amid his slew of early-season injuries, he was hesitant to keep the ball on quarterback reads or get out of the pocket on passing plays — moves he feels more comfortable making now.
Since the loss at Wisconsin, he’s picked up gains of 10-plus yards in all but two games, run for five touchdowns and helped get the Wolverines’ run game going by keeping defenses honest.
“Of course we know he can run and throw, so that’s an added benefit,” said senior guard Michael Onwenu. “If they bite down hard on a run, we can pull it. … It makes defenses think twice.”
So now, two months after Patterson ran for negative yards in consecutive games, McDaniels doesn’t even have to talk about running with him. He’s trusted to make his own reads and get out of the pocket as he sees fit. “Every plan is built in a way that, for the right reasons, when he takes off, it’s a good thing for our offense,” McDaniels said.
And, most importantly, it doesn’t end with the ball on the turf.