On the opening play of the second quarter, Chris Evans entered the Michigan football team’s backfield for the first time in four games.
The Wolverines needed to spark their running game in their eventual drubbing of No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday night. You could sense the ball was coming the junior running back’s way.
The Badgers certainly did. Junior quarterback Shea Patterson took the snap and motioned the ball to Evans, which forced Wisconsin to collapse on him. But it was Patterson — not Evans — for whom the play was designed.
Patterson pulled the ball away and took off down the left side, leaving a fooled defensive end and safety in the dust. And he kept going. And going. And going — until he was pushed out of bounds 81 yards from scrimmage. It set up Michigan’s first touchdown, as a play later, senior running back Karan Higdon scored from the two yardline.
Patterson’s mad dash was a rare look for the Wolverines. Despite his experience in an Ole Miss offense tailored for running quarterbacks, Michigan had utilized him as a pocket passer who could make throws on the move. That’s different from a pure running quarterback — someone with the speed and agility to make defenders miss in space.
While Patterson will never be that completely, he showed he can make cheating teams pay.
“If a team plays undisciplined, we’re going to use that to our advantage,” said junior safety Josh Metellus. “They were squeezing in too hard on the inside zone, so Shea felt he could pull it, and he did. They just kept being undisciplined, so Shea just (took) advantage of that.”
He did again in the third quarter. On another zone-read, Patterson pulled it down and bustled into the endzone for a seven-yard score. Linebacker T.J. Edwards was so foxed that his head was still turned the wrong direction when Patterson crossed the line of scrimmage.
“They were definitely game-planned runs,” Patterson said. “… When it actually happens, and there’s no (defenders) in front of you, it’s exciting.”
Patterson had just 31 rushing yards his first six games. He tripled that total Saturday with 90 yards on nine carries, sacks included.
“He allowed us to stretch their defense, hit all the gaps, make them accountable for as many gaps as we could,” Patterson said. “Well game-planned, well executed.”
And when Dylan McCaffery entered in garbage time, Michigan let the redshirt quarterback’s legs churn, too. On the exact same look as Patterson’s 81-yarder, he added the Wolverines’ final exclamation point with a 44-yard touchdown run.
There’s a reason why the play worked so well. Michigan hadn’t showed many designed quarterback runs before, and the Badgers were caught off-guard an overly aggressive.
The zone-read is yet another added layer to coach Jim Harbaugh’s offense, which looks markedly improved since the Wolverines’ season-opening loss at Notre Dame.
That directly contrasts last season, when poor quarterback and offensive line play caused Harbaugh to simplify things throughout the Big Ten season. With Patterson effective as both a passer and runner, however, the Wolverines’ offense is adding dynamism week-by-week in 2018.
“It opens up a lot in the offense — it’s something the defense has to defend,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he did a heck of a job with his fakes, with his ball handling, with his running ability, all facets.”
Junior guard Ben Bredeson also mentioned that Patterson’s running helps slow down opposing linebackers, which benefits his offensive line and ground game overall. Saturday, it helped Michigan run for an astounding 320 yards while earning its most-marquee win since in two seasons.
“You got to account for it,” said senior running back Karan Higdon. “He’s a dynamic player who makes great plays with his feat and arm, and it’s another man that defense have to watch out for now.”