And, boy, did he make a statement.
Hugh Freeze admitted he decided to remove Patterson’s redshirt on Sunday. But he played coy all week anyway as kickoff at Texas A&M rapidly approached. Maybe it was gamesmanship, his talking up Jason Pellerin and even floating out emergency quarterback names like Markell Pack, Evan Engram and Dawson Knox.
But Shea Patterson was his quarterback. He had to be. Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending injury in Ole Miss’ win over Georgia Southern. Freeze knew Patterson gave the Rebels the best chance to win, to give a deserving group of seniors — from Evan Engram and John Youngblood to Tony Conner and Issac Gross — one last postseason experience. He couldn’t let his team down. In the end, he knew, what mattered was now. What mattered was wins on Saturdays. What mattered were the watershed moments.
Saturday night was such a moment.
What Ole Miss fan would trade Saturday night for the possibility of a 2020 season for Patterson? You’ll remember where you were the night he debuted, the night he turned around a program that appeared spiraling downward. Sure, Ole Miss has its problems, but Shea Patterson will sit atop the list of solutions.
In his first-ever college game, which cannot be overstated, Patterson set school records for passing yards (338) and total yards (402) by a freshman. On the road. In front of over 100,000 opposing fans. Against the No. 8 team in the country in Texas A&M. And in a win. A much-needed, shot-in-the-arm win.
I said all week playing Patterson was the move. Not since the nightmare of 2010 had fan morale been so low. The atmosphere around the team was off. The NCAA cloud overhead has yet to even threaten to dissipate. Recruiting was dormant. Freeze had one card left to play to swing program momentum back towards the positive. That card was Patterson. He played it.
Patterson only responded by flashing Johnny Manziel and Archie Manning. His ability to allude pressure and create helped offset injuries along his offensive line, and he continually proved to be the spark for his team when all seemed lost. Ole Miss trailed 21-6 at the half. But a beleaguered Rebel defense stepped up like we haven’t seen in weeks, holding A&M to seven second-half points, and let Patterson go to work.
He rewarded them with 25 of 42 passing for 338 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Both of his touchdowns came in the second half. He also ran for 64 yards on 15 carries. Ole Miss is now 5-5 (2-4 SEC) on the year and one win away from bowl eligibility following the 29-28, come-from-behind win.
A 7-5 or 6-6 record with Chad Kelly at quarterback, no matter how good Kelly was, was going to be viewed as a disappointment. Granted, such a record would in no way be the fault of Kelly, one of the greatest players in school history. He was a one-man show for the Rebels for over a month. His contributions to the program will never be forgotten.
But regardless, 7-5 or 6-6 would have been a disappointment. With Patterson? Optically, such a record matters quite a bit. Think of when Eli Manning came in as a redshirt freshman during the fourth quarter of a blowout in the Music City Bowl against West Virginia. He rallied the team. I remember exactly where I was, watching from my hotel in Disney World, my dad announcing to the room the future had arrived and we were watching the first page of its very first chapter.
What Patterson is going to provide on the recruiting trail and in season ticket sales for next season will be undeniable. Transcendent talents only come around so often. Eli was one, Archie another.
Shea Patterson is such a talent. Saturday night was but the beginning. The future has arrived in earnest. Welcome to the show.