Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh stopped Shea Patterson moments before he trotted onto the field to put the finishing touches on his best performance as a Wolverine.
“I told him before he went out to take that snap, I said, ‘Now this year, after you take the kneel down, keep the ball and don’t throw it up in the air,’ Harbaugh recalled. “Because he had a heckuva game and I thought he should have the game ball.”
“I’ve got another plan,” Patterson replied.
The senior quarterback took his kneel from the pistol, let the clock wilt away and darted straight back to the sideline to hand the ball back to his coach.
It was a snapshot befitting of the moment — the new high-point of a marriage between coach and quarterback that was consummated just two years ago. Patterson tallied 384 yards, his single-game high at Michigan, and four touchdowns in the Wolverines’ 44-10 romp over Michigan State, his fingerprints lining the game from start to finish.
In a game rife with confrontation, Patterson held above the fray — calm, patient, professorial — taking what was given at first, then pushing the envelope when opportunity arose.
“They were dropping a lot in coverage fairly early on,” Patterson said. “We started taking the underneath stuff. Then they started playing underneath, and took the over-the-top stuff.”
On the first drive of the game, Patterson found sophomore receiver Ronnie Bell streaking toward the sideline while rolling to his left on third-and-14. The duo combined for nine catches and 150 yards, furthering a chemistry that has been evident all year. On his last drive, he sold the quarterback run, only to find freshman receiver Cornelius Johnson streaking down the left sideline for a 39-yard touchdown.
He celebrated by turning to his sideline and thrusting his arms in the air, a typically stoic personality suddenly vibrant. The players on the sideline responded. The remaining crowd bounced. This game meant more to everyone, but for the senior, now 2-0 against Michigan’s in-state rival, there was a healthy urgency.
“He just brought a different type of passion today,” said junior receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones. “He’s always passionate, but today, the whole team, it meant a little bit more. All throughout the week I could see it in practice. He was confident with his reads, confident with his throws. He trusted us, he trusted the gameplan.”
Still, it was the kind of performance, beginning to end, Michigan has hardly seen from Patterson in his two years at the helm. And it was one that appeared to catch the opponents off guard.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Patterson hit junior receiver Nico Collins in stride for a 22-yard touchdown, giving the Wolverines a 34-10 lead with one of his 14 pass plays of 15 yards or more. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio looked on, head craned forward. Ten seconds passed, but Dantonio didn’t so much as blink.
Then, clipboard in his right hand, Dantonio dismissively thrust his arm forward, turned around and receded into the sideline.
“Didn’t anticipate they would throw the ball as effectively as they did,” Dantonio said after the game. “Too many third-down opportunities where we had the chance to get off the field, we did not. Some credit to them, some discredit to us in terms of coverage play or whatever.”
Patterson hardly felt like delineating such credit or blame.
“This one’s special. I’m proud to just be a part of this team, part of a dominating win like that. We knew how important this game was, and we prepared our tails off. Like I said, I wish I had two more chances (to play Michigan State).”
Still, between the lines of his post-game comments was an implicit understanding. Michigan will not win the Big Ten title or make the playoff, but it has goals — namely, one goal — still in sight. Patterson knows as well as anyone that a duplicate performance two weeks from Saturday will give his team a shot to do what it’s done just once in 16 years.
He will not get two more shots at Michigan State. But he will get one final shot at something more.
Harbaugh, Patterson and co. will bask in this one for now, though — the kind of game that will leave an imprint on an already reeling opposing locker room.
As for capping that off, Harbaugh had one last piece of business to take care before coming out to speak with the media.
“(I) went back in the locker room and (the game ball is) now in his book bag,” Harbaugh clarified. “I shoved it back in his backpack.”