Oh, snap! Wolver­ines fall on botched punt

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY CHUCK CULPEP­PER

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.

ME­LANIE MAXWELL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Michi­gan State’s Jalen Watts-Jack­son is mobbed by team­mates af­ter his fum­ble re­cov­ery led to the game-win­ning touch­down as time ex­pired.

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