Rub your eyes. Shake your head. Rub your eyes again. You will never see a play like that again and you will never see an end like that again and there may never be a game in this storied Michigan-Michigan State rivalry like that again, not one that ends more strangely or turns more fortunes than the final seconds of this chilled Saturday evening.
Michigan had its biggest victory in years all but tucked away, fourth down, a two-point lead, 23-21, the clock ticking off the final 10 seconds. All it needed to do was punt the ball. Or for that matter, run around with it. Throw it high into the air. Toss it from guy to guy like a hot potato. Do anything to eat the final seconds — anything — but something stupid, the only thing you can’t do, turn it over.
But that’s what happened. The punter, Blake O’Neill, a graduate transfer student from Australia who may feel like returning there this morning, dropped the low snap, seemed to panic, and with his back to the oncoming rush, tried to kick it away, which resulted in a Keystone Cop swinging of the ball into the arms of someone named Jalen Watts-Jackson, a redshirt freshman backup on the Spartans’ roster.
And next thing you knew, Watts-Jackson was lumbering in a scrum toward the end zone, a sea of teammates protecting him, to grab MSU’s only lead of the day — as the clock turned to zeroes. You could hear 111,740 jaws dropping at the same time.
You know what sound that makes?
“It was just a matter of catching it and punting it,” said U-M coach Jim Harbaugh, sounding as stunned as the rest of the Michigan faithful after the 27-23 shocker. “And we messed it up.”
One for the ages
Did you watch it unfold? Did you need to see it twice? Four times? Six times? There were veteran sportswriters all over the press box Saturday, and not one of them could remember having seen a play like that. Not to end a game. Not a game that meant this much, a showdown between the No. 7 (MSU) and No. 12 (U-M) ranked teams in the country, one undefeated, the other with just one loss.
“The snap was low, just below the knees,” Harbaugh elaborated. “(O’Neill) didn’t field it cleanly. … He kind of kicked it like he was trying to kick it. He was in traffic. You saw it.… Is that the way you saw it?”
There was no answer. What’s the answer? Even Harbaugh, never at a loss for words, couldn’t come up with one. By the book, he did the right thing. You punt on that play. You don’t want to hand over possession. You don’t want to chance a Michigan State Hail Mary. Maybe in hindsight you don’t put the game in the hands of a punter who’s in his second year of American football and has never been involved in a game this big. But what else do you do? You can’t just run around like the final seconds of a basketball game — not without risking a real screw-up.
Like the one Michigan suffered anyhow.
“Very unfortunate,” Harbaugh finally said. “Mistakes were made.”
MSU hopes alive
But mistakes are what make the great human drama of college sports, and this was a great game even before that ridiculous finish. There were amazing plays, and wicked defensive stands and controversial calls and some horrible officiating, both ways. There were at least eight stoppages for replay and an ejection of Michigan’s leading tackler for “targeting” when it clearly seemed that he was pushed. The biggest offensive plays came from a defensive player for Michigan, Jabrill Peppers, and a seldom used fullback for Michigan State, Trevon Pendleton, who took a pass 74 yards in the fourth quarter for the first of many head shakes in that final stretch. A fullback? Catching a 74-yard pass?
And then the finish, which ensures the rivalry is fully ablaze now. How crazy was that last play? Until that point, the kicking game had been the best part of Michigan’s arsenal: three made field goals and a record-setting 80-yard punt by the Aussie O’Neill. How crazy was that last play? The Spartans’ hero, Watts-Jackson, severely injured his hip somewhere between the end zone and the celebration and had to be taken to the hospital. But that’s fitting for a red-letter game that resets a series which had become too one-sided for its own good.
Saturday will forever be a showdown that Michigan will claim it had won, a game that should have stopped the bleeding of six Michigan State victories in the seven years.
Instead, it’s seven in eight years for the Spartans, who didn’t need a bus to get back to East Lansing; they could have flown on the wind beneath their wings.
“I guess we won on a crazy play,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio told ESPN on the field after the finish.
He guesses? Come on. It was the biggest miracle finish of Dantonio’s tenure (and he’s had a lot of big finishes). It keeps the Spartans’ national championship hopes alive. It validates those who claimed experience like MSU’s would matter in the fourth quarter of a big game. And it was the green-tinged joy of a small miracle spoiled for Harbaugh, who was about to do what Bo Schembechler, Gary Moeller, Lloyd Carr, Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke had not been able to do before him: win their first game against Michigan State as head coach of Michigan
The crazy thing is, until that snap, Michigan and its astonishingly improved defense had done it. It had stopped the Spartans and their star senior quarterback, Connor Cook, when it had to, breaking up a fourth-and-19 pass to get the ball back on downs.
At that point, with 1:47 left and the ball near midfield, it seemed like a done deal. Michigan fans were high-fiving. Spartans fans were sagging. The Wolverines did what you’re supposed to do: run safe plays to eat the clock. MSU burned its final time-out. Michigan ran twice more. If De’Veon Smith had been able to gain a few more yards and a first down, you’d be reading a different story.
Instead, here came fourth down from the MSU 47.
And the punt that wasn’t.
“We overcame so much,” Harbaugh said. “Calls that were made, calls that weren’t made, we just kept fighting. … Ultimately we played winning football.”
But that’s not how history will record it.
Spartans steal what Wolverines thought they had.
Wait till next year
Now, give the Spartans full due. Although it feels like they lucked out, they were certainly in close enough position to win this thing. Cook played like a star all game long, and made enough great throws to win Saturday had his teammates caught a few more than they did. Cook finished with 328 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. He might have been over 400 yards had his receivers had stickier fingers.
Still, time and time again, Cook was able to connect with Aaron Burbridge, who had nine receptions for 132 yards, many in the very teeth of the celebrated Michigan defense.
Meanwhile, the Spartans’ defense was a monster itself, a brick wall to the celebrated Michigan rushing attack. Despite a huge emphasis on the run, the Wolverines could only 62 yards on the ground, and only 46 on 19 carries for star back Smith. That was never going to get it done. In hindsight, you wonder how U-M stayed so close given that paltry ground game.
But all week long, Dantonio had been saying all that counts is winning. And while he isn’t the type to gloat (well, not much), he privately must be taking some satisfaction that the crown preordained to land on Harbaugh’s head was jarred loose by a silly mistake, and an opportune special-teams unit, the most maligned part of the Spartans’ team this year.
“We’re 7-0, we advance, that’s what it means,” Dantonio said, when asked. “In the Big Picture, our dreams are still alive.”
And at least one of Michigan’s is DEAD.
Rub your eyes. Run the replay. Shake your head. Rub your eyes again. Then focus on the calendar for next October. For when the fog clears from Saturday, the play itself may be no more clear, but this will be: The rivalry is real again. Real, angry, dramatic and controversial. Michigan-Michigan State was a helluva game, even before its blinking finish Saturday. And the countdown to next year already has begun.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.