EVANSTON — Saturday wasn’t Shea Patterson’s best performance in a Michigan uniform. It’s not one that will litter his highlight reel or show off to NFL scouts. His statistics won’t jump off the page come Sunday morning.
But with 10:05 left in the fourth quarter, down by four points, Patterson took the ball and showed the very reason Michigan went and got him in the first place. He showed talent. He showed moxy. He showed emotion.
In the process, he went out and won a Big Ten football game on the road, roaring back from an early 17-0 deficit to beat Northwestern, 20-17.
“I saw a guy with poise, confidence and belief, a lot of faith,” said junior running back Karan Higdon. “When you work with somebody like that, who knows what can happen?”
Against Notre Dame four weeks ago, that comeback effort fell short, as Patterson fumbled on a potential game-tying drive with 46 seconds left. That game crept into the back of Patterson’s head as he took the huddle, down 17-13 in the fourth quarter, with the game in his hands.
“I love when the moment’s big, even when I fail,” Patterson said. “I love that situation because you’ve got to fail to succeed.”
Patterson, who entered the decisive drive 12-for-21 for just 152 yards, found Jared Wangler on a nine-yard checkdown in the flat, surveying the field and choosing to dump the ball down to his fifth-year senior fullback. It was Wangler’s first career catch.
Then, after two consecutive Higdon runs amounted to four yards, Patterson and the Michigan offense faced 3rd down. He knew he was dropping back. Northwestern knew he was dropping back. The whole stadium knew.
Patterson dropped back anyway, firing a 13-yard strike to redshirt junior Zach Gentry on the sideline, entering Northwestern territory as the clock continued to tick.
Two plays later, he faced a third-and-six once again, this time eluding a linebacker to gain nine yards with his legs. He got off the ground and shimmied and signaled a first down with his arms.
“This is why we play the game, situations like this,” Patterson said. “It was just a fun feeling. Call a zone read, get the first down, get excited about the game. I love it.”
Then, the decisive play. The throw that will be seared into fans’ memories, the one that reminded everyone why it was imperative for Michigan to bring him in. Moments like this.
Patterson fired a dart to Gentry for 22 yards, who was running down the seam. It was the perfect location — on Gentry’s right shoulder. It had the perfect speed — just miliseconds before the safety could come over the top to make a play on the ball.
“They gave up a lot of stuff over the middle, and I think the adjustment in the second half just let your guy go make a play,” Patterson said. “Put it in the vicinity, and that’s the kind of guy Zach Gentry is.”
Deflect praise, as he may, it was an NFL throw. It was a winning throw.
It also brought Michigan into a goal-to-go situation, where, two plays later, Higdon walked in for the game-winning, five-yard score. Patterson pumped his arms and sprinted back to the sideline.
“I like what we’re made of, starting with the quarterback,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “He really stepped up big, took the game into his hands in a lot of ways there in the second half.”
“A-plus-plus,” Harbaugh added.
In the first half, Patterson was uncharacteristically errant on a few throws, lamenting a potential touchdown to senior Grant Perry in the third quarter that was overthrown. Throughout the game, he stayed positive, entering offense, defense and special teams huddles to keep the team morale up.
In the second half, he told fifth-year senior defensive end Chase Winovich, “ ‘You take care of what you need to take care of,’ as Winovich recalled. “We’re going to score this ball, we’re going to score this touchdown.’ ”
And when it mattered most, he backed up those words.
He made every throw when he needed, he found first downs with his legs when the situation called for it. He orchestrated and executed the 17-point comeback at the helm, on the road.
But there’s something with Patterson right now that supercedes his talent. An ambiguous “it” factor that has been noticeably absent in the quarterback room the last few years.
Some call it leadership. Higdon opted for “belief.” Winovich, Patterson’s roommate, took it step further.
“I don’t know the statistics beside the W. I just know there’s something about him. I saw it the very first time we had met. He was a major factor in me coming back because there’s just an aura about him. … He’s a football player.
“But something about Shea is special. People can see it. Being on the team with him, you can feel it.”