BLOOMINGTON — Shea Patterson’s previous pass had fallen hopelessly incomplete, a wide-open Donovan Peoples-Jones looking on as the ball clattered to the end-zone turf.
Staring into a third-and-9 from the Indiana 11 with Michigan trailing by seven, Patterson could have easily wilted. He could have found Nico Collins underneath, short of the first down, or fled the pocket in search of a few extra yards.
And a few weeks ago, that’s what he might have done. Why risk an interception with a field goal all but assured? That’s the mentality Patterson seemed to play with earlier in the season, throwing just five touchdowns in the Wolverines’ first five games.
But not now. This Patterson stood in the pocket, unfazed by the Hoosiers’ blitz, and fired a perfectly-thrown back-shoulder pass to Peoples-Jones, allowing his star receiver to make a play. Seconds later, this Patterson took to the air, both fists clenched in celebration. And when it was all over, this Patterson jogged off the field victorious, with 750 passing yards and nine touchdowns over his last two games.
“He beat his man and ran a heck of a route,” Patterson said, understandably shifting the credit onto Peoples-Jones’ highlight-reel catch.
Then, in a rare moment of public self-reflection, he turned the praise onto himself: “I just gave him the ball where he could catch it.”
Over the next three quarters, Michigan never looked back en route to a 39-14 win. And as a nervous first half devolved into an unexpected rout over the 7-4 Hoosiers, that mentality — as simple as it seems — carried the Wolverines.
It’s what allowed Patterson to find Collins for a trio of touchdowns, including two on contested end zone throws he might not have attempted a month ago. As Collins took a slant route 76 yards to the house on the second of those touchdowns, it would have been easy to heap praise on him. Doing so would have been justified, with his afternoon providing enough content for a fine NFL Draft highlight package.
It would also ignore the catalyst that makes this offense go.
“Shea’s going through the reads, finding all the receivers,” Collins said. “That’s pretty much it. He’s just going through the progressions, finding the open receiver. He’s giving us a chance.”
The offense, of course, doesn’t start and end with Patterson. When asked about their connection, Collins’ first reaction was to credit the offensive line and that’s fair. This offense, so predicated on options, only works if the quarterback has enough time to go through his reads.
It also only works if the run game keeps defenses honest — something it struggled with at times early in the season — and if receivers are getting open. It’s why Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh repeatedly defended Patterson in the face of early-season criticism. Even now, he’s wary of pinning too much credit or blame on one player. “A lot goes into each and every (play) — all 11 (players),” Harbaugh said. “All 11 being in sync.”
None of that, though, happens without Patterson.
“His rhythm, his getting the ball out, is all on time,” Harbaugh said. “Everything has become very precise with Shea, with the receivers, with the tight ends, backs. The passing game has been operating on time extremely well.”
When the Wolverines were written off for a dead a month ago, Patterson was ridiculed for saying, “We’re right where we want to be.”
Saturday night, sitting at a podium beneath Memorial Stadium, he acknowledged that wasn’t the case — it took “growing pains” to get where Michigan is now. But with one game left to define his legacy, he also knows what’s left to play for. “Just the word Ohio State in itself is enough for us,” Patterson said.
Minutes later, as Harbaugh sat in the same seat, extolling his quarterback’s performance, he paused and turned to a team spokesperson.
“Another record I think today?”
First Michigan quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in back-to-back games, came the response.
“First quarterback in Michigan history? Wow.”