After eight months of hype and hysteria, it was only expected that Michigan’s new offense would be a motif when Shea Patterson spoke to the media following the opener. Nobody, though, expected the senior quarterback’s response to be a repeated shake of the head, followed by, “I gotta take care of the football.”
Patterson fumbled on the season’s first play from scrimmage Saturday night, handing Middle Tennessee State the ball in Michigan territory, and soon, a 7-0 lead. He fumbled again later, pouncing on top of the ball before things could repeat themselves. The Blue Raiders’ lead didn’t hold up and never had much of a chance of doing so — in the end, the Wolverines won 40-21 without much consternation — but it never strayed far from Patterson’s mind as he took questions afterwards.
Asked about the offense in general terms, the first words out of Patterson’s mouth were, “I gotta take care of the football.” After a follow up, he finished complimenting his receivers, then said, “We gotta play better.” After a question regarding Michigan’s use of two quarterbacks at a time, he replied, “I don’t know how to answer that, but yeah. I got the ball in my hands every single play, and I gotta take care of it.” As he talked, his lips barely moved. He did not bear the demeanor of someone paying lip service to improvement.
“A win’s a win,” Patterson said, “but I think everybody in that locker room knows that we didn’t live up to our standards.”
Patterson, in reality, was his own worst public relations manager on a night where, by and large, he played just fine and maybe even better than that. Patterson completed 17 of 29 passes for 203 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 151.6 rating, which is squarely in the middle of the pack during his time at Michigan.
This is different, because it came against a clearly inferior opponent, it was Patterson’s first time in Josh Gattis’ offense and it wasn’t the beatdown that everyone from Michigan fans to Vegas oddsmakers thought it would be.
Still, he orchestrated the Wolverines’ best moment of the game, a four-play, 67-yard drive in just over a minute at the start of the second quarter. He pulled the ball and found Tarik Black on two straight run-pass options, then found Nico Collins on a well-placed throw to the end zone, putting it where only Collins could get it.
Two of Patterson’s three touchdown passes, Jim Harbaugh said, came from plays where Patterson got to the line of scrimmage and checked Michigan into something different. That kind of quick-strike decision making is what Patterson can bring to this offense, and it’s what an offense predicated on no-huddle and option football requires from its quarterback.
“He was outstanding in that regard,” Harbaugh said.
As he himself was more than happy to say, Patterson had his issues, ball security chief among them. According to Harbaugh, he was also evaluated for an undisclosed injury at halftime, which likely helps explain why he threw the ball 25 times in the first 30 minutes and four in the latter 30 minutes.
But when you’re playing in a new offense and the biggest concern after the first game is ball security, that’s a good problem to have. It’s not a commentary on the offense, nor his fit in it, that Patterson fumbled twice. Harbaugh pointed out that the quarterbacks handle the ball a lot in this system, but ball security hasn’t been a major issue for Patterson in the past and likely won’t be in the future.
What matters is Patterson making the right decisions at the line of scrimmage. What matters is his comfortability in playing fast and putting the defense in conflict. What matters is his doing all that while being the same effective passer he was last season. And for now, what matters is that he checked all of those boxes on Saturday.
In all of his morosity at the podium, Patterson offered one moment of clarity.
“I think we definitely know who we are. From Day One, I think we knew who we were right when the guys came in, coach Gattis came in. We worked so hard all spring and all summer.
“It’s just a matter of taking care of the little things.”