Niyo: Patterson provides the juice as Wolverines are electric under the lights

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson runs for 81 yards in the second quarter.

Ann Arbor — Shea Patterson read the situation, checked his options and decided to make his move. And just like his college football career, the play started one way before he took it another.

Once he had, once the Wolverines’ quarterback turned the corner Saturday night, even he couldn’t believe the opportunity in front of him, with a crowd of 111,360 at Michigan Stadium roaring and all that room to run.

“That was surprising,” he laughed a few hours later, after the Wolverines had run 15th-ranked Wisconsin into the ground, 38-13, in a nationally-televised game under the lights. “I didn’t know it was gonna open up that way. … That was an adrenaline rush.”

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And not just for Patterson, the transfer who has helped transform this Michigan team — headed for a top-10 ranking and a grudge match with Michigan State next weekend in East Lansing — back into a legitimate Big Ten title contender. For weeks now, Jim Harbaugh has talked about the energy his new quarterback has injected into the program, and now that they’ve waded into conference play, everyone’s seeing just what he means, and exactly why it matters.

“It always comes down to that,” Harbaugh said, nodding. “Guys making plays.”

And in Patterson, he has a playmaker at the most important position.

Running to daylight

Saturday night, it was the first play of the second quarter of a scoreless slugfest that flipped the switch and electrified the crowd. Patterson faked an inside handoff to running back Chris Evans, then pulled it back as he saw a senior linebacker crashing off the end and a freshman cornerback biting inside for the Badgers.

And by the time he turned the corner, sprung by another terrific block from tight end Sean McKeon, we all saw what it looks like when game-planning and execution finally mesh for Harbaugh’s offense. There was nothing but open field in front of Patterson, who raced down the sideline 81 yards before getting pushed out of bounds at the 5.

“I just kinda ran out of gas there,” Patterson said, shaking his head. “I think that’s the first 80-yard run in my whole entire life.”

Michigan scored two plays later on another option play, this time a handoff that Karan Higdon grabbed from his quarterback and wouldn’t give back.

And though it took until the third quarter for the Wolverines to seize complete control of the game, with the nation’s top-ranked defense hammering away while that Michigan offensive line started to flex its muscles, too, it was Patterson again who provided the jolt.

On third-and-1 from Wisconsin 7-yard line, the junior quarterback worked another zone-read play to perfection, faking the handoff to Evans and then taking off around right end, spinning into the end zone as he took a shot from cornerback Deron Harrell at the goal line. Harrell’s helmet slammed into Patterson’s left hand on that play, opening a cut on his knuckle that would require stitches and glue — and a second glove — when he got back to the sideline.

 “But I didn’t even realize it until I got back to the huddle and the guys were like, ‘Daaaang!’” Patterson said. “There was so much adrenaline.”

Drawing blood

And another play to run, as Michigan opted for a 2-point conversion attempt. With blood streaming down the back of his injured hand, he faked a jet sweep to Donovan Peoples-Jones and then rolled to his right and found Nico Collins in the end zone to give Michigan a 21-7 lead.

From there, it was mostly a Big Ten bloodletting for the Wolverines, the kind fans in Ann Arbor have been thirsting for more of the last few years. A big game, a big stage, and a big win? There haven’t been enough of those, and everyone in the program knows it.

“I think it was a statement game,” said Patterson, who didn’t even need to pass in the second half as Michigan piled up a season-high 320 yards on the ground — more than half of it from quarterbacks. “We came out and kind of gave it to 'em a little bit. We didn’t just win. We kind of dominated them.”

Across the board, really. The defense had Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook off-balance all night — he went nearly three full quarters without a completion in the middle of the game — and even added a Lavert Hill pick-six to turn it into a rout in the fourth. The emerging offensive line found a rhythm in the second half and Karan Higdon found running room inside and out. Michigan won the special-teams battle, too, thanks in part to a rare roughing-the-snapper penalty that helped extend that critical touchdown drive to start the third quarter.

But if there was a spark, it came from the quarterback. The one Harbaugh credits with unlocking the possibilities for this offense. The one even the defensive players at Michigan will point to as a catalyst, whether it’s leading a comeback win at Northwestern or unleashing a rout of Wisconsin at home.

“You see it,” said linebacker Josh Uche, who racked up another sack in Saturday’s win. “I remember seeing him on the sideline (at Northwestern), fired up, telling everyone, ‘Let’s go!’ And that’ll forever be in my mind. He’s brought a lot of swagger to the team, a lot of confidence, a lot of passion and fire.”

And a lot of possibilities, something that wasn’t hard to read during Saturday’s game or after, as Patterson finished his media session and shared a hug with the attorney, Thomas Mars, who’d helped him navigate the NCAA eligibility fight after his offseason transfer from Ole Miss.

Without him, this night might not have happened. And with Patterson on the field, who knows what might for the Wolverines yet this season.