No one would mistake the play for a spinning Barry Sanders run or a juking Michael Vick scramble. It wasn’t even John Elway helicoptering through the air in the Super Bowl.
The move that Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson made a few weeks ago was more modest than that.
Twisting away from two Maryland rushers, he drifted to his left, buying another second or two, then flipped a 34-yard touchdown pass down the sideline. Still, it got coach Jim Harbaugh excited enough to give the play a nickname.
“Whirlybird,” Patterson said, shaking his head. “Sounds about right.”
A passer who can turn big trouble into big plays is a big deal in Ann Arbor, a missing ingredient that has transformed the Wolverines into a national championship contender.
The Patterson effect came to fruition Tuesday when his 8-1 team ascended into the fourth spot in the latest College Football Playoff ranking.
“With Shea, they’ve added another element to their package,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “Getting on the perimeter.”
This fall, everyone assumed Michigan would have one of the best defenses, and that unit has made good on the hype, holding opponents to a national-best 216 yards a game.
The question mark was on offense, where the Wolverines had struggled to move the ball efficiently over the last few years and repeatedly fallen short of preseason expectations.
Most of the concern focused on the quarterback position. Michigan ranked 111th in passing yards per game last season, cycling through three passers — one of them, Wilton Speight, ended up transferring to UCLA. More importantly, the offense failed to make plays in the clutch.
Patterson arrived in the offseason as a former five-star recruit and transfer from Mississippi, where he had shown promise his first two seasons but suffered a knee injury and decided to leave when the program was penalized for NCAA violations.
“Crazy thing is, from the jump,” the junior said. ‘Through the first few workouts in the spring and on to the summer, just a bunch of great dudes.”
The feeling was mutual. Through training camp, teammates praised Patterson’s arm strength and elusiveness. Harbaugh named him the starter in late August, suggesting that his new quarterback had something special.
“It starts by finding the quiet spot in the pocket and using your mobility to do that,” the coach said. “And then sometimes it becomes necessary to escape the pocket — he’s got the ability to do that.”
Not that everything went swimmingly from the start. In the season opener at Notre Dame, the offense did not score a touchdown until the fourth quarter. Defense and special teams kept the score close, giving the Wolverines a chance to drive for the winning score in the final two minutes.
Patterson, who completed 20 of 30 passes for 227 yards, drove his team to midfield but was stripped of the ball.
“Being the competitor that I am, you always have that sour taste,” he said of the failed drive.
The defeat raised another bugaboo for Michigan — under Harbaugh, the program had developed an exasperating habit of winning when favored, but stumbling in big games and losing to traditional rivals.
This year’s schedule provided some room to rebound, the Wolverines improving each week with victories against such underdogs as Western Michigan, Southern Methodist and Nebraska.
Against a tougher Northwestern, Patterson scrambled at key moments and completed just enough passes to spark a 20-17 comeback victory on the road.
“Definitely a better passer than we thought he was going to be,” Northwestern defensive back Jared McGee said. “He was able to extend plays and get some yards, pick up a couple first downs.”
The quarterback’s comfort level seemed to rise another notch the following week, as he passed for 282 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland. But the real test began in mid-October with consecutive games against ranked Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State.
With the defense providing some cushion, holding those Big Ten opponents under two touchdowns each, the offense excelled in three straight wins.
It helps that senior running back Karan Higdon has hit his stride, ranking 11th in the nation with 963 yards and scoring seven touchdowns. Patterson hasn’t thrown a ton — he is averaging 185 passing yards a game — but his efficiency rating of 157.1 ranks 16th in the country.
“Every week we attack it the same,” he said after last Saturday’s convincing 42-7 win. “I don’t think Penn State gets beat like that too often. It was a lot of fun.”
It might be a bit early to put much stock in the weekly CFP rankings. After its shutout victory over Louisiana State, top-ranked Alabama seems to be cruising along. The same could be said for No. 2 Clemson, which is settling in with a new quarterback of its own, freshman Trevor Lawrence. And undefeated Notre Dame appears to have a strong hold on the No. 3 spot, the Fighting Irish facing a very winnable schedule the rest of the way.
That leaves Michigan to fight for the final slot in the playoff bracket.
Before the Wolverines start worrying too much about CFP votes, they have to get through the rest of the Big Ten season, with games against Rutgers and Indiana before the showdown at No. 10 Ohio State and a potential date in the conference championship.
Higdon insists this fall seems different.
“It was that way from the beginning,” he said. “You could feel it was a different group of guys.”
A group looking to show it can win the games that matter.
Defense will continue to lead the way, but Michigan’s national championship hopes could rest on a quarterback who has brought something new to the table.
“We’re extremely confident,” Patterson said. “We’re just going to ride the wave and progress every single week.”
Follow @LAtimesWharton on Twitter