Besides the more obvious ways in which Shea Patterson’s debut in College Station was so special, Saturday night marked a stark change in the mid-game trajectory of the offense in 2016. For the first time all year, the ever-volatile Rebel attack saved its best moments for the final quarter, doing so against an intimidatingly loaded, albeit banged up, defense. It goes without saying that it all started with Patterson.
Collapsing late in games had been a problem for this offense all season, and the numbers back it up. By quarterly Offensive S&P+, they had been 11th or better through three quarters and 82nd in the fourth. Among other reasons, defenses had an evaluation period to figure out the offense, after which they would shut the Rebels down.
Patterson overhauled that theme and came up with a new script, throwing for 12 yards per pass and two touchdowns in the final 15 minutes of play.
The dynamic young quarterback thrived under pressure, which is cause to expect this won't be remembered as a one-time occurrence. Once Shea got comfortable, he demonstrated to everyone what he was fully capable of. Offensive production surged in the fourth quarter, and it should be replicable going forward with Patterson leading the charge.
Shea was both efficient and explosive down the stretch.
Had the comeback been fueled solely by a few timely gains that took advantage of busted coverage, I'd be willing to hear out the few remaining skeptics, but that's not what happened. In the fourth quarter, the offense got the yards it needed on an absurd 58 percent of their plays. Just as critical was Shea’s ability to generate explosive plays to speed up the process of getting into the end zone.
(Football Outsiders defines a successful play as one of the following: gaining 50 percent of the yards you need on first down, 70 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down. Explosive plays are categorized as runs that gain at least 12 yards or passes that gain at least 20.)
Seven of Ole Miss’ nine big plays came in the second half, and outside of a touchdown run by Akeem Judd early in the fourth quarter, all of these plays came through the air. Judd’s score was set up by that filthy 40-yard catch by Damore’ea Stringfellow and it was a 32-yard dime to Van Jefferson on the following drive that brought Ole Miss even closer to victory.
It’s difficult for any team to consistently score on drives lasting 10 to 15 plays, so Hugh Freeze’s trust in Patterson to take shots down the field was imperative.
Patterson was a stud on passing downs.
If you’re looking for a way to decide whether a quarterback’s numbers are a little inflated, focusing on how he did in the toughest of situations is helpful. A good quarterback doesn’t experience dramatic regression when going from standard downs to passing downs.
(Passing downs are defined as second down with at least eight yards to go or third/fourth with at least five to go. All other situations are standard downs.)
Just as Chad Kelly did before him, Shea stayed composed when the offense fell behind the sticks.
His passing success rate only declined from 41 to 40 percent when shifting to passing downs. Considering that the national average for passing downs success rate is just 32 percent, Shea was more than just fine. He was able to convert on five of the nine third downs that came through the air, further demonstrating his steady hand.
Sure, Patterson could have helped himself out a bit more on early downs, but a lot of the shakiness in this area likely came from early jitters, as he missed on a few relatively easy throws. I really don’t expect efficiency to be a long-term issue for an Ole Miss offense with him at the helm.
Shea handled the pass rush like a pro.
Not only did Patterson have to deal with the pressure of third-and-longs, but he also dealt with the pressure of gargantuan athletes trying to end him on just about every play. Playing behind a banged up O-line missing two starters could have exacerbated an already tough situation, but Shea overcame it.
His 5.23 yards per carry came partly from a few key scrambles, in which he quickly decided to leave the pocket before being ended by the aforementioned pass rushers. Few college quarterbacks possess the sharp decision-making ability to turn a dreadfully high snap into a positive play, but Patterson did exactly that with a 16-yard burst on the first offensive snap of the game. In addition to making things happen on the ground, he produced through the air despite being hurried six times. For a reference point, Kelly was hurried by Alabama’s rushmen just twice this September.
Shea’s escapability is probably best highlighted by his first career touchdown pass as a Rebel, in which he made us all feel very silly after pleading for him to throw the ball away.
For reasons already detailed by people who followed Patterson’s recruiting to what we’ve seen from him in-game already, there’s no sense in pumping the brakes on hyping up the newest Ole Miss quarterback phenom.