Ann Arbor — People are always talking about a team’s offensive identity. What is it? When will you find it? Can you maintain it?
Michigan’s identity, through three games, can be summed up in three words — quarterback Shea Patterson.
Patterson is the heartbeat of the offense and has established himself as a calm and collected leader who probably needs to be unfettered a bit more to showcase the extent of his skills. He has completed 70.8 percent of passes for the Wolverines, ranking him 17th nationally of 119 quarterbacks. He is ranked 21st in pass efficiency.
Perhaps most intriguing is how he moves the ball around. Donovan Peoples-Jones has four of Patterson’s six touchdown throws, including three in the 40-25 victory over SMU last Saturday.
Patterson, who transferred to Michigan from Ole Miss last December, was 14-of-18 for 237 yards, three touchdowns and an interception against SMU. He and Peoples-Jones connected on passes that went for 35-, 7- and 41-yard touchdowns.
He is 46-of-65 for 589 yards has six touchdowns and two interceptions through three games. Seven players caught passes from Patterson in the win over SMU.
“He’s seeing the field really good,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s making really good decisions. Receivers are helping out a lot. Zach Gentry kinda broke things open for us getting in the seam route and Donovan had another monster game. Everybody was running good routes for him and catching the ball.
“He’s getting out of trouble and creating plays when sometimes there isn’t one to be there. He’s playing the position really well. And making the throws when they present themselves. He’s hitting the short ones, he’s hitting the intermediate ones, he’s hitting the deep ones. Good quarterback play.”
Zach Gentry, a tight end, led the team with 95 yards receiving on four catches.
“It feels good to spread the ball around and make plays in the passing game and have some statistics there,” Gentry said. “It feels good to get that going. It’s improved every week since camp started.”
He credited Patterson and the play-calling.
“They’re seeing stuff up there in the box,” Gentry said. “Shea’s the guy out there doing it. He’s taking control of the offense and spreading the ball around, which is great. He’s able to scramble, which is even better.”
Patterson went through spring practice and quickly acclimated to this offense. He credited the players around him for his efficiency.
“Trusting and believing in this offense and knowing the progression every play,” Patterson said, explaining why he has been so efficient. “And an O-line that’s really coming together and giving me time back there, so there’s no reason why I can’t complete every pass.”
It hasn’t been a dynamic offense as the Wolverines prepare for the opening of the Big Ten season on Saturday against Nebraska at Michigan Stadium. Michigan is 84th nationally in offense, averaging 397.3 yards a game and are 46th in scoring, averaging 37 points. Of course, it should be noted that after opening the season at Notre Dame, the Wolverines have faced two opponents, Western Michigan and SMU which were large underdogs.
Patterson, however, has been steady and commanding. Last season, Michigan played three quarterbacks who had a combined completion percentage of 53.4 percent and nine passing touchdowns, including three to receivers. Patterson already has six touchdown passes, three in each of the last two games.
He also has two interceptions. Michigan was in the red zone at the SMU 12-yard line, and Patterson went to tight end Sean McKeon. He said he had Gentry open and should have made that decision.
But Patterson’s decision-making was sound with Peoples-Jones, who finished with 90 yards on four catches. He has had to take on a bigger role after receiver Tarik Black suffered a broken foot a week before the start of the season.
Peoples-Jones is seventh nationally in receiving touchdowns with four.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Patterson said of the sophomore receiver. “I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do. Very smart, very fast, very football savvy as well. I know if I throw it up I’ve just got to put it in the vicinity. There’s a lot of trust in him.”
Michigan had three touchdowns all last season by the receivers. Peoples-Jones shrugged off the fact he had three against SMU. It was the most touchdowns scored by a Michigan receiver since Jehu Chesson had four against Indiana in 2015.
“I just got a lot of teammates that make my job easy,” Peoples-Jones said. “The O-line did a great job. Shea is out there delivering beautiful balls. Very easy to catch the ball and run.”
Patterson said they’ve worked on the back-shoulder throws with Peoples-Jones that have resulted in touchdowns the last two games.
“That’s something we work on pretty often,” he said. “The whole fall camp after our practices we’d get about 10-15 back shoulder and just regular fade routes to get our chemistry and timing down.”