Moments like these are the reason Michigan went out and got Shea Patterson in the first place. Why they brought him to the Big House to toss around snowballs two winters ago and why his visit to a basketball game was treated like a parade.
He is not, never was and never will be the savior of this program — and those who expected as such placed an unattainable burden on his shoulders. Those people set themselves up for failure before Patterson even took a snap.
But they nabbed Patterson, a blue-chip, five-star recruit, from the transfer market because he is the most talented player to play quarterback at Michigan since Denard Robinson, and it’s not particularly close. By certain traits, his talents even supercede those of Robinson. He’s the most natural passer Michigan’s had since Chad Henne; he’ll finish this year with the most efficient two-season stint at quarterback since Henne in the mid-2000s. None of that is hyperbole.
And right now, he’s playing the position at a level this program hasn’t seen in quite awhile. Just in the nick of time.
Michigan went on the road Saturday and beat a quality Indiana team, 39-14, behind 366 passing yards and five touchdowns from Patterson. In the last two weeks, the senior has 750 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception, while completing over 67 percent of his passes. He’s thrown for four-plus touchdowns in consecutive games for the first time in program history.
“We’re riding him,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh after Saturday’s game. “His play has just been outstanding. But he’s really seeing the field well, he’s taking care of the football at all times.”
After an uneasy first half of the season, Patterson has settled into offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ new offense, making quicker and more deliberate decisions to put the defense in conflict horizontally and vertically.
He’s doing so in a way that oozes command and gives his talented receiving corps a chance to make plays.
“When Shea has time like that, we know we can move the ball,” said junior receiver Nico Collins. “We were just out there having fun today. And I feel like we’ve been having fun as an offensive unit since the second half of that Penn State. I feel like we’re finally clicking.
“We’ve got one game left, and it’s time to finish strong.”
Which brings us to this week, a game which requires no clarification to espouse its importance. Ohio State comes to town as arguably the most complete team in the country. The Wolverines are rightly a hefty underdog.
But with Patterson playing the way he is, and the offense subsequently humming, Harbaugh and his staff have a luxury they haven’t had in this game in the previous four meetings.
In 2015, Jake Rudock went into this game on a good run in his own right. But the talent gap between those teams — the Wolverines in their first year under Harbaugh facing a Buckeyes squad that went on to win the National Title — was too wide for it to matter. The year after, Michigan wasn’t sure Wilton Speight would play due to injury. Even when he suited up (a few boneheaded mistakes clouding an otherwise underrated performance), Speight was never able to do the things Patterson can. In 2017, John O’Korn’s dreadful performance, capped by an inexplicable arm punt on the drive that could have won the game, marred what was otherwise a masterful gameplan. An average quarterback probably leads Michigan to a win that year.
Last year, Patterson was efficient, but stuck in an offense that inherently compressed his skillset. He threw for 187 yards and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes, but the contrast in offensive paces and styles stuck out like a sore thumb. Ohio State boat raced the Michigan defense for 62 points with ease; the Wolverines scratched and clawed for everything they could.
This year, the combination of talent and system are coalescing at the perfect time, and they give Michigan one clear reason for hope going into Saturday.
“We understand the level of intensity this game brings,” Patterson said Saturday. “Everything we do leading up to this game next week is already plain throughout the season. I think Ohio State, just the word ‘Ohio State’ in itself is enough for us.”
If the Wolverines somehow pull off a win for just the second time in 16 years in this rivalry, it will all but surely come with another monster performance from their senior quarterback. For the first time in the Harbaugh era, that hypothetical seems far from outlandish.
The staff doesn’t have to go into this game holding their quarterback’s hand. They aren’t asking him to simply manage the game. The goal isn’t to avoid turnovers and let the defense go win a rock fight. They are not designing a game plan in spite of him; he’s at its crux.
They’re going to ask Shea Patterson to go out and win this football game, to play his game and lead this team to a win that would reconfigure the perception of Michigan football.
They’re going to ask that because he can do it.
Marcovitch can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Max_Marcovitch