Oh, snap! Wolverines fall on botched punt
ann arbor, mich. — The celebration that could not be happening happened in the left corner of the end zone beneath bewildered Michigan students. It teemed with the impossible sight of Michigan State football players piling upon an obscure hero named Jalen Watts-Jackson, and it might have caused the hip injury that forced him to a hospital afterward.
The happy locker room that could not be happening happened on the visiting side; after 3 hours 50 minutes and 159 football plays of football gruel, the No. 7 Spartans looked assuredly beaten until the last and kookiest play. When they did not end up beaten, when they won, 27-23, over No .12 Michigan ,“everyone was crying ,” safety Grayson Miller said.
The play that could not happen had
and stood not only tall in the lore among the 117 years and 108 games of this rivalry but in the mad transcontinental chase toward the College Football Playoff. After all, it might take another 117 years and 108 games to process Watts-Jackson’s 38yard return of a botched punt snap as time expired.
“Football is a crazy, crazy game,” Michigan State Coach Mark Dantonio said.
Seldom had it gone this crazy, this whiplash-crazy. Having stopped the Michigan State offense one last time, the restored national contender Michigan went about the normal mechanics of clock-draining. It had hung on, and it would reach the top 10 with searing rapidity in its first season under Coach Jim Harbaugh.
It took over at its own 45-yard line. It ran three running plays for eight yards. Carefully and twice, it watched the play clock down to the last second of availability, then called timeouts just to be safe, at 56 second and 10 seconds.
With 10 seconds left, it faced fourth down and a decision of minuscule football risk. “If you go for it, you leave them with a Hail Mary opportunity,” Harbaugh said. “We could protect and throw a long pass. We ran through the scenarios and felt like the best decision was to punt. They didn’t have any returners. It was a matter of punting it. We messed up.”
The snap went toward punter Blake O’Neill, a fifth-year senior from Melbourne, Australia, who earlier had nailed a deadly strategic 80-yard punt. Yet it bounced off his hand. The nightmare began. He picked it up as some Spartans rushed in from his left and whiffed at a desperate attempt to kick it. The nightmare persisted.
As the gaggle of Spartans reached him, the nightmare strayed toward the impossible. The ball squirted rightward to Watts-Jackson, a third-string safety, who caught it and began running down the left side of the field. A wall of green-and-white teammates materialized as blockers, the final seconds ticked away, and Watts-Jackson made one inside move near the 10-yard line, avoided the last trace of trouble and barreled into the end zone.
Everyone on the premises began trying to process the inconceivable. Riley Bullough, a redshirt junior Michigan State line-happened backer, said, “I had my head turned for a second, and then I looked back on the field and see we’re running the other way.”
Safety Demetrious Cox said, “Everybody was crazy, running the field.”
Bullough said, “I couldn’t catch my breath.”
Cox: “I was like, ‘What? We scored?’ ”
Bullough: “I was like, ‘Did it really happen? Does it count?’ ”
Cox: “I don’t know how he got in the end zone, but he did.”
Bullough: “I was just trying to piece it together from all the moments before that.”
Before that, Michigan State (7-0) had felt everything but the full, finished brunt of losing. It had outgained Michigan and a great defense that had posted three straight shutouts by 386230. It had forged 20 first downs to Michigan’s 10.
When it faced a 23-14 deficit with 9:25 left, it had shown the entrenched winning know-how it has amassed over Dantonio’s nine seasons as the top program in this state. It quickly had loosed a wideopen fullback, Trevon Pendleton, for a lumbering 74-yard pass-andc-atch that set up the touchdown that narrowed the score to 23-21.
Yet Michigan (5-2) had managed to stall Michigan State all through the final moments: after the Spartans had a first and 10 at the Michigan 32-yard line to start the fourth quarter and after they had a first and 10 at the Michigan 40 with 7:09 left and after they had a first and 10 at the Michigan 36 with 2:33 left.
Michigan had done so with crucial final-drive sacks and hurries by end Willie Henry, with the unusual prowess of Jabrill Peppers, the all-American-bound safety whose 28-yard reception on offense, 49-yard kickoff return and 16-yard punt return all had set up scores. It had persisted through the questionable secondquarter expulsion of Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden for targeting.
Michigan had “competed like the dickens,” Harbaugh said once, and “competed like maniacs,” he said another time, and then it had conducted one final, routine play. Somehow, an hour after that, Dantonio emerged toward the bus, a gaggle of ecstatic Spartans fans yelling, “Coach D, we love you!,” and, “Go Green! Go White!”
None of what was happening could have been happening.
Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson is mobbed by teammates after his fumble recovery led to the game-winning touchdown as time expired.