It wasn’t supposed to happen like this, but it did. Shea Patterson was expected to redshirt 2016 and study up under the Rebels’ standout quarterback Chad Kelly, but that insulated tutoring came to an abrupt end last Saturday against Georgia Southern, as Kelly’s Ole Miss career was undone by twin tears to his ACL and lateral meniscus.
After Kelly went down, Hugh Freeze had a decision to make: start backup QB Jason Pellerin, a somewhat experienced former three-star recruit with a less-than-serviceable arm and situational running ability, or go with greenhorn true frosh Shea Patterson, the best quarterback of 2016’s signing class who aligns best with Ole Miss’ spread offensive attack. Ole Miss’ ungodly receivers need someone to throw the the ball to them, after all.
Freeze elected to go with Patterson — for the most part — against Texas A&M, on the road, and in primetime. And it worked. He owned every Ole Miss freshman quarterback yardage record, and he only got better as the game sauntered on.
338 pass yards: Ole Miss freshman record.— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 13, 2016
402 yards total offense: Ole Miss freshman record.
Shea Patterson made quite the debut. pic.twitter.com/6bo2xa70r2
Shea had an understandably shaky first half.
Try to understand yourself in this situation: a highly recruited true freshman quarterback suddenly forced to lead a still-potent but dwindling offense on the road — in deep November — against a No. 8 ranked SEC team and in front 110,000 cacophonous fans. Dare you not to flinch, because they HATE you. Also, there’s that stupid 12th Man yell-house, so they REALLY hate you, because SEC football is nothing if not irrational, blind, searing rage.
When decibel levels are causing your rib cage to jump out of our chest as you’re trying to call in offensive plays, life can get MIGHTY STRESSFUL. As it can when your offensive line fails to perform the duties of offensive lines in your first career start.
Patterson didn’t complete a pass on his first drive. He scrambled twice for 16 and -12 yards, and the Rebel offense fizzled right there. He finished out the first half 10 of 19 for 92 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
But Shea had an unbelievably great second half
By which we mean fourth quarter, really. The first play of the final frame saw Patterson complete his first career touchdown pass, a 6-yard pitch and catch on the run to Demore’ea Stringfellow, who would later haul in a one-handed circus-like grab while under demonstrable pass interference. It didn’t matter.
In the second half, Patterson went 15-of-23 for 246 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception. On the drive that ended with an infuriating fumble by Pellerin, Shea completed passes of 26, 23 and 15 yards in a row to three different receivers. He marched the offense into the end zone three consecutive times, and on the fourth he brought it within range of Gary Wunderlich’s leg for the win.
Throughout the second half, SEC Network analyst Jesse Palmer kept calling up echoes of Johnny Manziel when lauding Patterson’s out-of-pocket mobility and awareness. Certainly his final scramble for a first down before the game-clinching field goal held whispers of Manziel’s jackrabbit takeoffs from way back when.
Aided by strong Landshark defensive stops on the Aggies’ final two possessions, Patterson drowned out the noise and narrative and whatever else to lift a beleaguered Rebel football team past a top-10 opponent on their home turf. That’s remarkable.
This is Shea Patterson’s team now, and that’s good for Ole Miss’ football future.
Many criticized Freeze for shredding Patterson’s redshirt this year. It was desperate they said, it preemptively ruined a frosh’s window to catch on, it was a cheap but lucrative ploy to attract recruits with an unknown NCAA punishment hanging over the program. Sure, whatever.
Freeze needs to win games now, because last season’s 10-win season ain’t gonna happen in 2016. Freeze has an arsenal of superlative receivers that need to catch footballs and Pellerin can’t deliver them receptions. Freeze wants success in the present — which is the case for every SEC coach — and his offense is built such that it requires an arm of Patterson’s strength and accuracy.
Freeze also needs to set the table for next season and, yes, enhance his recruiting clout. Winning helps recruiting. Also, winning strengthens job security. Cry NCAA SANCTIONS OR SOMETHING all you want, but Ole Miss is going to put its most successful football face forward, and that face includes Shea Patterson racking up 402 total yards in his first career start.
Given the win-now necessities and other sundry panoply of CFB job market forces, Freeze escapes without blame here. He played his best position player in the most important offensive position. He’ll do so until the season is over. Maybe more college coaches should decide to do things like this. Oh right, they all do.