Bob Wojnowski, Angelique S. Chengelis and Matt Charboneau preview the Michigan-Michigan State game in East Lansing on Saturday. The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Shea Patterson has been at Michigan since January, not really a long time for someone who was projected to change the Wolverines’ trajectory from the moment he was cleared by the NCAA following months of behind-the-scenes toil to secure his immediate eligibility.
From that moment in late April, after spring practice and as the team bonded during a trip to Paris, Patterson, the nation’s top-rated quarterback in the 2016 class who transferred last December from Ole Miss, was expected to take Michigan to the promised land. Michigan hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2004, sniffed the outside edges of the College Football Playoff in 2016, and then went 8-5 last season.
But here the Wolverines sit, ranked No. 6 and riding a hot six-game winning streak, in large part because of the quiet swagger and confidence Patterson has instilled in this team. Michigan now faces its major in-state speed bump, No. 24 Michigan State, as the teams play for the 111th time when they meet Saturday at Spartan Stadium.
Michigan State has won eight of the last 10 meetings, but Michigan’s last win came at MSU, 32-23, in 2016.
“I kinda grew up around the rivalry,” said Patterson, who was raised in Toledo and attended Michigan home games until his family moved to Texas when he was in fifth grade.
“I know how important of a game it is for both Michigan State and us. We’re going to attack it with the same enthusiasm we have in the past six weeks.”
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh discusses Shea Patterson's improvements. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Patterson hasn’t been the quarterback equivalent of a swashbuckler as some might have anticipated. That was never going to happen in a Jim Harbaugh offense. But he has evolved and so have Harbaugh and pass-game coordinator Pep Hamilton as they've game-planned and groomed him each week, adding more to the offense to take advantage of Patterson’s dual-threat ability.
Patterson is completing 68.6 percent of his passes, which ranks him 14th nationally and No. 2 in the Big Ten, and the Wolverines rank 26th in pass efficiency. Patterson has thrown 10 touchdowns against three interceptions while leading Michigan to a 6-1 record (4-0 Big Ten). Michigan had nine touchdown passes all of last season.
A highlight came last week in a 38-13 victory over Wisconsin when Patterson broke free for an 81-yard run, which heightened awareness of his running ability for defensive coordinators who are preparing for Michigan.
“It’s no secret that Shea is the most athletic quarterback that Coach Harbaugh’s had since he’s been here,” ESPN "College GameDay" analyst Desmond Howard said last week. “He’s getting more comfortable. He’s looking like he’s getting into a rhythm.
“He’s looking like the Shea Patterson that people anticipated who came from Ole Miss. When he said he was going to transfer to Michigan, people were like, ‘OK, this is what this kid brings to an offense.’ I think now he’s starting to look like that kid.”
Harbaugh has taken a layering approach with Patterson, each week adding something new. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it isn’t.
Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson said he's still learning his position and it's all about trusting the game plan. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
“He finds another thing to be really good at every single week,” Harbaugh said this week. “This past week (against Wisconsin), his running ability, his ball handling was superb with the fakes, carrying out the fakes with the decision making, ball security. He does a great job of taking care of the football. Does a great job making decisions. Team trusts him.”
Patterson has said he learned more from Harbaugh and Hamilton in two months after his arrival than he had his entire life playing the game.
“Just knowledge about football and knowledge about defenses and coverages,” Patterson said this week when asked what he has learned from them. “Work ethic and practice and just how to carry yourself during practice. Really with Coach Pep it’s just the little things that have gotten me a lot better. Just staying loaded in the pocket, not bouncing around and trying to make a throw. Just always be in that position to throw the ball.”
Patterson had a terrific group of receivers at Ole Miss. He said it was an adjustment when he first arrived at Michigan because he was going to be tasked with managing games.
There was an inherent challenge to that because Patterson had always been “that guy” who makes big plays and now he was being asked to, in a sense, scale back.
“Growing up and kinda just trying to be a big-time playmaker all the time, I think as I’m getting older, especially when I got here surrounded by so much talent and so many guys, an incredible defense, incredible special teams and amazing players around me,” Patterson said of making the adjustment. “Just manage the game. And the biggest thing, as Coach Pep says, just manage a bad play. Don’t make a bad play worse. If you can make something happen, make it happen. If not, live for the next play.”
U-M safety Tyree Kinnel says "it's good going against" quarterback Shea Patterson in practice. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Admittedly, it has taken time to embrace this more measured approach.
“Just natural instincts sometimes,” Patterson said. “I’m learning. I’m going to continue to get better. Ball security is the biggest thing right now.”
Ball security always is key, particularly in a heated rivalry game where any miscue can swell into something nearly impossible to overcome. Against Michigan State’s top-rated run defense, Michigan will be challenged to find room. Having Patterson as a proven option should be an asset.
“It gives the defense more to worry about, more to game plan about,” running back Tru Wilson said. “The guy’s special. He can do what he wants with his arm, he can do what he wants with his legs. It’s cool to see.”
Last week before the Wisconsin game, David Pollack, who played at Georgia and had seen plenty of Ole Miss games involving Patterson as an analyst on "College GameDay," said Patterson would have to start becoming a factor in the run game. Especially, Pollack said, in games like Wisconsin, and this stretch that includes Michigan State and then Penn State after the bye.
“Shea has got good athleticism,” Pollack said. “You’ll continue to see him use that because you have to use that in this offense. I don’t think this offensive line is dominant by any stretch of the imagination. I think they run the ball pretty efficiently, but you’re going to need Shea Patterson’s wheels. To win games like this, you’ll need Shea Patterson to run the football.”
The Wolverines are enjoying a six-game winning streak but have refrained from being overconfident, especially this week as they’ve prepared for Michigan State.
“We had a fun time last Saturday, but that game is over with,” Patterson said. “One game at a time."
As Patterson has learned to manage the offense, he’s also managing the pace of the season and, of course, expectations. That's no easy task, but he loves the challenge.
Michigan at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
TV/radio: Fox/950, 760
Records: Michigan 6-1, 4-0 Big Ten; Michigan State 4-2, 2-1
Line: Michigan by 7