It didn’t hit Shea Patterson until he boarded the bus to head to the stadium Saturday morning. He passed the tailgates he frequented as a kid. He recalled conversations he used to have with his dad.
The junior had thought about what it might be like to play quarterback in maize and blue since his childhood. He’d spoken with his coach, Jim Harbaugh, about it since the day he stepped on campus. As he got in the bus, he realized his circuitous journey finally brought him to that desired point.
When Patterson got his opportunity to run out of the tunnel at Michigan Stadium, his coach stood back to take in the scene. It’s Harbaugh who might understand that emotional lure better than anyone else.
“He touched the banner — looked like he kinda went up and did a little reverse dunk,” Harbaugh said, with a glowing smile. “He had a little sugar on the flakes touching the banner. … It’s awesome when it means something to someone.”
Added Patterson: “When I ran out of the tunnel with my teammates, I can’t describe that feeling. It was kind of emotional, but excited as well.”
Saturday, Patterson knew that lengthy journey would end with him taking the first snap in front of 110,000-plus fans in the very stands he used to sit in. Perhaps he didn’t know that journey would end with the most promising home debut from a Michigan quarterback in recent memory.
Patterson lit up a hapless Western Michigan defense, finishing the game with three touchdowns in three quarters of tidy work, going 12-for-17 for 125 yards and guiding the Wolverines (1-1) to a 49-3 win over the Broncos. His 190.6 quarterback rating is the highest from a Michigan quarterback since Wilton Speight posted a 233.4 rating against Maryland on Nov. 5, 2016.
He dazzled all the shiny tools that made his transfer to Michigan so intriguing in the first place — the playmaking with his legs, the arm talent to make any throw, the poise to command an offense. It was all on display Saturday.
For fans and players alike, it was a refreshing change.
“We’ve had Jake Rudock here, and there’s problems that are beyond the scope of a quarterback, but in terms of how our offense efficiently played and how Shea looked, I’d say it’s as good as any quarterback I’ve seen here,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich. “It was weird being on the sideline and them just scoring touchdowns. I remember (junior safety) Josh Metellus… he goes, I just remember him sitting there looking, he’s like ‘Man, this is nice!’ I think the feeling is mutual from my half.”
Everything in this game comes with the caveat of Western Michigan’s weakness — a team that allowed 560 total yards and 55 points last week against Syracuse. But it wasn’t necessarily the sheer numbers that will leave fans so encouraged by Patterson’s play, and rather the manner in which they came. There were several plays he made that no quarterback on the last year’s roster would have, independent of the Broncos’ ineptitude.
On the second drive of the game, Patterson rolled to his left, throwing across his body to a lunging Oliver Martin on the sideline for a first down. The window was tight, the margin for error non-existent. Patterson hit him anyway.
“That’s really having a feel, the depth perception, the ability to throw different types of passes,” Harbaugh said. “Drilled it in there on the run to his left. That’s check, check, check. Plus, plus, plus.”
Late in the first half, Patterson stayed calm in the pocket, dropping a dime over the top of the safety into the waiting hands of sophomore receiver Nico Collins. It was the first touchdown a Michigan quarterback has thrown to a wide receiver in 364 days. It was also the first of three such scores on the day.
On his third and final touchdown, Patterson floated a delicate pass to sophomore Donovan Peoples-Jones on third and goal from the 5-yard-line. It wasn’t his first read on the play, Harbaugh said, rather a response to the defense reacting to Collins coming on a slant underneath. Patterson showed the awareness to adapt, the skill to place it perfectly.
“The throw to (Peoples-Jones) probably stands out in my mind as the one that really puts an exclamation point on it,” Harbaugh said.
Stiffer tests will come, no doubt. Nobody will confuse Patterson with a program savior simply because of a game against Western Michigan.
But from the players’ perspective, their plaudits have little to do with the Broncos, or anything tangible. It’s in his command of the offense, his constant poise. They see a quarterback who might — just might — have the reins of the program comfortably in his hands. The reins he’s been waiting for since childhood.
“The thing about Shea is that he just has such a sense of confidence that doesn’t come off as cocky, but you just know and he knows — this is my opinion about it — that he’s the man,” Winovich said. “He’s the man for the job, and he can get the job done. I think for him, it was just another day at the office.”