Patterson stays patient, puts up big numbers

Brett Angel

Tony Patterson was not about to say anything, but the frustration was palpable.

Minnesota football coach Glen Mason could sense it brewing in his fifth-year wide receiver without ever hearing a word. So Mason approached Patterson before practice last week with a few words of encouragement.

“He pulled me to the side and said, ‘Be ready, you’re going to make a big play this week,’ ” Patterson recalled.

Despite Mason’s optimism, Patterson admits he was not convinced at the time.

“I was like, ‘Come on coach, I haven’t touched the ball in three weeks,’ ” he said.

By Saturday afternoon, however, Patterson was making believers out of his teammates and his coach’s predictions a reality.

He finished Minnesota’s game against Michigan State with six catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. His second-quarter score was Minnesota’s first touchdown of the game and pulled the Gophers back within seven points after falling behind 17-0 to the Spartans.

Patterson’s performance was a pleasant surprise after totaling just four receptions and 38 yards through the first seven games this season.

“We’ve just kind of been waiting on him to get back on track,” wide receivers coach Richard Wilson said. “I don’t know if you’d call it a breakout game. It’s a deal where he played like I knew he could the whole time.”

Patterson has recorded his share of solid games during his four years at Minnesota. As a sophomore in 2001, he caught seven passes for 99 yards (both career bests) against Iowa. He totaled eight receptions for 132 yards in the final two Big Ten games last year.

But injuries have led to inconsistency and limited Patterson’s ability to contribute consistently on the field.

After completing what coaches referred to as an outstanding spring practice in 2002, Patterson broke his hand in fall camp before his junior season. He returned in time for the conference schedule and finished the year with 20 catches for 274 yards and two touchdowns.

Since then he has twice suffered a pulled hamstring, most recently in August.

Still, Patterson refuses to let his bad fortune define him as a football player. He chooses to be thankful for the opportunities he has been given rather than dwell on those that were taken away.

“Tony’s got a lot of personal pride,” Wilson said. “He’s a guy that never complains. With him it’s not about being the lead dog; he just wants to be a part of the team.”

That type of unselfish, hard-working attitude seems to be the perfect fit for a member of Minnesota’s receiving corps.

The Gophers’ smash-mouth offense has averaged 50 rushes per game this season, and there are only so many receptions to go around. Minnesota averages just 21 pass attempts per game.

So far this season, most catches have gone to receivers Aaron Hosack and Jared Ellerson. But with more teams likely to stack the line of scrimmage to stop the Gophers’ running game, a la Michigan State, this could be Patterson’s chance to develop the level of consistency he has lacked in previous years.

Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq – also a fifth-year senior – has confidence Patterson can do just that. Not that he expects his modest teammate to let anyone know about it.

“When we say, ‘Tony, we need you to come up big,’ he does it and still doesn’t say anything,” Abdul-Khaliq said. “He’ll make a 30-yard catch and come back to the huddle like it was nothing. He’s a guy who just loves to do his job.”

Whether his performance against Michigan State carries over through the rest of the season, Patterson remains comfortable in his role and unwavering in his priorities.

“I’m like the utility guy,” he said. “But the greatest thing I’d like to accomplish, this being my last year, is to go out on a wining note.”

Perhaps if the Gophers win out the rest of the season and head to a New Year’s Day bowl game, Patterson will speak out in celebration.

Until then, he is content to let his game do the talking.