Niyo: Michigan offense, Shea Patterson have much to prove in Big Ten opener

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The question was a simple one. The answer was, too.

How far does Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson think the Wolverines are from showing just what their ballyhooed offense really can do?

Patterson, fresh off the practice field as he met with reporters Tuesday night, smiled at the query and then faked counting on his fingers. One … two … three …

“What is it, like, three-and-a-half or four days until the game?” he deadpanned, referring to Saturday’s Big Ten opener at No. 13 Wisconsin. “I think we will in about three or four days.”

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson is 36-for-58 for 410 yards, including three TDs, in two games this season.

So, no, it sure doesn’t sound as if Patterson shares any of the concerns that others outside Schembechler Hall have raised about the 11th-ranked Wolverines’ offensive struggles early this season.

For starters, he said, “We’re not gonna apologize for being 2-0.”

And though he won’t say it, some of this probably was inevitable, what with Michigan unveiling a new spread offense this fall with a first-time play-caller in coordinator Josh Gattis. Throw in a few unscripted setbacks, including an oblique injury Patterson suffered on the first play of the season opener against Middle Tennessee State, and some of the stumbling and fumbling around is understandable.

Asked what he took away from those nonconference games, Patterson shrugged, “Learning, learning and more learning.”

But as for what’s next, with Michigan coming off a bye week and heading to Madison to face the Badgers, who have yet to allow a point this season, well, Patterson isn’t the only one counting the days.

“Yeah, we’re looking to go out there and make a statement,” he said, echoing the sentiments shared by some of his teammates Monday. “It’s as simple as that.”

Looking uncomfortable

A year ago, it certainly was, as Michigan began its so-called “Revenge Tour” with a 38-13 rout of Wisconsin in Ann Arbor in mid-October. The Wolverines piled up 320 rushing yards that night — including an 81-yard keeper from the quarterback that set up Michigan’s first score — and afterward Patterson referred to it as a “statement game.”

“We didn’t just win,” he said then. “We kind of dominated them.”

No one’s expecting an encore of that Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, where Michigan hasn’t won since 2001 and where Patterson & Co. actually will be a slight underdog this time around, according to the oddsmakers.

But more to the point, no one is quite sure what to expect from Patterson, who after a strong first-half performance in the opener hasn’t looked all that comfortable in an offense that everyone insists is ideally-suited for his game.

The senior has completed 62.1 percent of his passes through two games, but he’s averaging just 7.1 yards per attempt.

And while he has yet to throw an interception, Patterson has fumbled four times, losing three of them — matching the Wolverines’ team total for all of last season. He also has been sacked six times, and perhaps not coincidentally, his pocket poise was lacking in the double-overtime win against Army.

How much of that can be blamed on the injury? Patterson wasn’t using it as an excuse, though he admitted Tuesday oblique injuries are “no fun” and “it did kind of wear on me a little bit.”

Whatever the case, he says he’s healthy now and “ready to go, 100 percent,” something his teammates say is evident on the practice field.

“For sure,” senior tight end Nick Eubanks said. “We knew that was gonna happen. He’s just doing Shea things, being himself again. And we’re glad to see that.”

Facing the enemy

But now it’s time to see what this offense really can be. The “speed in space” Gattis promised has mostly spun its wheels thus far. And as rival-turned-analyst Urban Meyer noted this week, it’s time for that to change: “They gotta start doing what they said they were going to do,” the former Ohio State coach told Fox Sports Radio, “and that’s playing space — they’re not doing that yet.”

They’re certainly not doing enough of it, and the second-half grind against Army looked nothing like what’d been advertised. An opponent was practically daring Michigan to throw quick screens to the likes of Nico Collins and Tarik Black and the Wolverines politely declined. Other plays that were there for the taking either fell incomplete or simply fell apart as Patterson left the pocket too early, at times, and penalties and drops happened too often.

“If you watch the tape like we did,” senior lineman Ben Bredeson said, “the explosive plays were all there,”

Standing here Tuesday night, Patterson was saying much the same.

The goal, he said, is “to reach our full potential. Obviously, we haven’t the last two weeks.” And to do that, he added, “it all starts with me.”

That means eliminating the mistakes — Patterson joked about sleeping with a football at night to cure the fumbling issue — particularly in a noisy environment that’ll affect all those shotgun snaps and up-tempo plans. 

But it also means making better snap decisions in the pocket, and better reads, giving Michigan’s skill-position talent the chance to shine.

“It’s just going out there and playing with confidence and letting it loose,” Patterson said. “Because at the end of the day, we feel the only people that can stop us is us.”

In just a few days, he’s eager to show everyone they’re right.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo