Niyo: Second straight win over Spartans brings contentment to Patterson, Harbaugh

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The coach and the quarterback met near midfield for a lengthy chat before the final play. But the conversation Jim Harbaugh had with Shea Patterson was about a different kind of strategy.

Michigan was putting the finishing touches on a 44-10 pummeling of Michigan State — the most lopsided result in this in-state rivalry in 17 years — and Harbaugh simply wanted to make sure his senior quarterback knew what to do with 17 seconds left on the clock.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson throws a pass in the second half. Patterson threw for 384 yards and four touchdowns against the Spartans.

A year ago, in his first go-around against the Spartans in East Lansing, Patterson had finished the game in the same victory formation. And after the final play in that one, he’d held the football above his head before tossing it in jubilation.

“Now, this year,” Harbaugh reminded him Saturday afternoon, “after you take the kneel-down, keep the ball. Don’t throw it up into the air.”

Patterson had played a starring role in Saturday's lopsided win, passing for a career-high 384 yards and four touchdowns, surpassing Tom Brady (285 yards, two TDs in 1999) for the best single-game performance by a Michigan quarterback against Michigan State. So the way Harbaugh saw it, he deserved the game ball.

But Patterson wasn’t having it.

“He said, ‘I got another plan,’ and I said, ‘What?’” Harbaugh recalled with a laugh in his postgame press conference. “He goes, ‘You’ll see.’ ”

Sure enough, after Patterson took a knee, he popped right back up and ran toward the sideline, handing Harbaugh the game ball before joining his teammates in celebrating a second consecutive win over the Spartans.

“He deserved it,” Patterson told me after the game, when asked about the significance of that moment.

'Nearly flawless'

Harbaugh, now 3-2 against the Spartans after Michigan's first home win in this series since 2012, cradled the souvenir as he left the field and headed up the tunnel, his players carrying the Paul Bunyan Trophy behind him. But while he appreciated the gesture — “That was neat,” Harbaugh admitted later — he also knew he’d have the final say on the matter.

“I went back in the locker room and it’s now back in his book bag,” Harbaugh said. “I shoved it back in his backpack. I mean, he had a whale of a game. He had a great game. … It was a real gem.”

A “nearly flawless” one, in fact, as Patterson dissected Michigan State’s defense all afternoon, completing 24 of his 32 attempts — to nine receivers — Saturday before a crowd of 111,496 at Michigan Stadium. That performance included 14 pass plays — to seven receivers — of 15 yards or more as the Wolverines piled up 467 yards of total offense. 

“The plan wasn’t to pass the ball all game, but our guys were getting into open space and making plays,” Patterson shrugged. “It was easy on my part.”

He made it look easy, at least.

Give offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and the coaching staff some of the credit for that, obviously. (“They had this game plan wired,” Harbaugh said.) And give Michigan’s offensive line its due after another strong showing, building off the second-half surge at Penn State and the big wins over Notre Dame and Maryland.

But don’t overlook the way Patterson went about his business again in this one, calmly and coolly taking what the Michigan State defense gave him on a sunny-but-cold, mid-November day.

Bringing the edge

Harbaugh has been steadfast in his praise of Patterson, even when the results — and particularly the turnovers earlier this fall — didn’t necessarily seem to support it.

“I’ve been happy with Shea ever since he’s been here, you know? From the beginning,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a great player, great quarterback, great competitor. Just the guy you want playing quarterback.”

That's partly because of his even-keeled personality, which often gets misinterpreted by fans. But like most of his teammates, there was an edge to Patterson that was undeniable this past week. And Saturday, it was on display as Michigan poured it on against overmatched Michigan State team.

“He just brought a different type of passion today,” said receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who had one touchdown on a terrific catch-and-run to start the second half and just missed on another when he stepped out of bounds early in the fourth quarter.  “Shea's always passionate, but today ... the whole team, it meant a little more. All throughout the week I could just see it in practice. he was confident with his reads, he was confident with his throws, he trusted us, he trusted the game plan.”

And, yes, he trusts that his head coach has his back. That’s been true from the start, when Patterson decided to transfer out of a mess at Ole Miss and Harbaugh eagerly met him more than halfway.

It's part of the reason Harbaugh overhauled his offense last winter, hiring Gattis and handing him the keys. It's part of the why he backed off the dual-quarterback discussion involving Dylan McCaffrey several weeks ago and doubled down on the guy wearing the No. 2 jersey as his No. 1. And it's surely part of what was left unsaid before that final play Saturday, as Patterson became the first Michigan starting quarterback with consecutive wins over Michigan State since Chad Henne in 2006-07.

It took a couple series before Michigan got settled, but once the Wolverines made a few adjustments and started finding the soft spots in Michigan State’s defense — with bubble screens and crossing routes underneath, and the occasional RPO run — everything opened up.

By halftime, Ronnie Bell had as many receiving yards (118) on seven catches as Michigan State’s entire offense had in 28 plays. And by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, the visitors’ frustrations were evident. One play after Michigan’s LaVert Hill picked off Brian Lewerke, Michigan State’s Jacub Panasiuk was ejected for a flagrant late hit on Patterson.

“Anytime you play a rivalry game, when stuff gets out of hand and you dominate ‘em, that’s kinda what’s gonna happen on the other side,” Patterson said. “I think we were ready for that and it didn’t really faze me.”

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It certainly didn’t dissuade Harbaugh, either. And with all but a couple of his offensive starters in the game until the very end, Michigan wasn’t about to let up facing third-and-2 from the Spartans’ 39-yard line with under 3 minutes to play. Patterson took the snap, faked a handoff and rolled to his left before lofting a pass over three hard-charging defenders to freshman wideout Cornelius Johnson.

"We wanted to go out there and score as many points as we could," Patterson said, grinning. "That play was designed to kind of end like that."

Besides, as he put it, “At that point it’s just playing backyard football."

So what better place to do it but in this Backyard Brawl, right? It’s a 121-year-old rivalry that has now swung back in Michigan’s direction after nearly a decade of Mark Dantonio holding the upper hand. And for Patterson, the only lament after Saturday's game  was that his glass was only half-full.

“This one’s special,” he said. “I just wish I had two more shots against them. I wish I could’ve started here and had four shots at them. 

"But," he added, "it was a lot of fun today.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo