ANN ARBOR, Mich. – When former No. 1 overall quarterback Shea Patterson announced he would transfer to the University of Michigan, the outlook for the 2018 season completely changed.
Jim Harbaugh's run heavy, pro-style offense was destined to be led by a dual-threat quarterback who liked to throw the ball all over the field at Ole Miss. It might have seemed like a strange fit on the surface, but so far, it's worked out about as well as Harbaugh could have hoped.
Passing performance so far
Through three games, Patterson has been the best quarterback Harbaugh's had at Michigan. He fought off a hungry Notre Dame defense and the struggles of his own offensive line to put together a solid opener, completing 20 of 30 passes for 227 yards.
In the two games since, Patterson has completed 26 of 35 passes for 362 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
For the first time since 2015, Michigan can get the ball to its talented wide receivers. Donovan Peoples-Jones caught three touchdown passes against Southern Methodist, and Nico Collins also hauled in a long touchdown grab against Western Michigan.
It's blatantly obvious that Michigan's passing attack is much improved, but it hasn't been put on full display yet.
In the last two games, Michigan kicked off as a heavy favorite and held a comfortable lead by halftime. Patterson didn't play during the fourth quarter against Western Michigan and only threw the ball twice in the fourth quarter against SMU.
The Wolverines played 60 strong minutes against Western Michigan to make up for the loss in the opener, but last weekend's performance against SMU was flatter. Whether the coaching staff is trying not to show too much of the offense or trying not to run up the score, the passing attack hasn't been allowed to spread its wings.
Can Nebraska keep it close?
That may happen weekend as Michigan welcomes a much stronger team to the Big House. Yes, Nebraska is 0-2 on the season, but it's an 0-2 spurred by a heartbreaking, penalty-aided loss to Colorado and an injury to starting quarterback Adrian Martinez.
Regardless of record, Nebraska has some of the tools necessary to upset Michigan. Most importantly, it has a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. If Martinez isn't cleared to play this weekend, the Cornhuskers have little chance to win in Ann Arbor.
But if Martinez takes the field, Scott Frost has to feel good about his chances to keep the game close. The freshman has completed 15 of 20 passes for 187 yards this season while running for 117 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
Michigan has often struggled against running quarterbacks, even with Don Brown's elite defenses. It was an issue again in the opener as Brandon Wimbush ran for 59 yards, including several critical carries on third down.
Nebraska has a dynamic young quarterback, two solid running backs and a pair of talented receivers. It's enough to give Michigan a run for its money.
Why Patterson might have to shoulder load
There was little incentive for Michigan to showcase its passing game against Western Michigan and SMU, but there's plenty of reason to let it loose against Nebraska.
First of all, it's the start of Big Ten play. With the loss to Notre Dame, all of Michigan's remaining season goals center around winning a conference title, and it can't do so with home losses against teams that aren't expected to compete.
Also, there are questions surrounding the health of Michigan's top two running backs. Karan Higdon, the team's leading rusher and most reliable option for the third straight year, missed the whole SMU game with an injury. Chris Evans, who started in Higdon's place, got dinged up during the game turned the duties over to Tru Wilson in the second half.
While Wilson did a nice job filling in, Michigan's rushing attack isn't much of a threat without its top two weapons.
Even if Higdon and Evans are cleared to play, Harbaugh might not want to saddle them with 20 carries if they aren't at 100 percent health. The most important stretch of Michigan's season -- consecutive games against Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State -- is right around the corner, and the Wolverines need both running backs to be close to full strength.
In addition to health concerns, there are questions about whether Michigan can run the ball against Nebraska's defense. The Cornhuskers are holding opponents to 93.5 yards per game on the ground, good for 20th in the country.
Michigan only averaged 1.8 yards per rush against Notre Dame, and Nebraska has an even better run defense through three weeks.
The Wolverines have been above average in terms of running the ball so far, ranking 37th nationally in yards per carry and 60th in rushing yards per game. But those numbers came against the 80th-ranked rush defense of SMU and the 122nd-ranked rush defense of Western Michigan.
Can Michigan win with heavy passing attack?
If Michigan needs its passing attack to win the game, is Patterson capable of taking over? At Ole Miss, that's exactly what he did.
Patterson threw for more than 300 yards in five of his seven games last season and more than 400 yards twice. He had at least four touchdown passes in three games.
Patterson has gotten into a rhythm in the Michigan offense, which has plenty of weapons to choose from. Peoples-Jones has developed into his favorite target, while Collins is a top downfield threat. In short-yardage situations, tight end Zach Gentry and slot receiver Grant Perry have both contributed.
Saturday should be an early indication of whether the offense has truly improved since the Notre Dame game. Patterson will have to make some plays in the passing game, and if the offensive line can give him a chance, Michigan fans might get their first true taste of the former No. 1 quarterback.