“There’s 10 seconds to go. Fourth-and-2. Jim Harbaugh has to decide what he wants to do here. O’Neill’s been terrific with the rugby-style punts but you have to be careful here, make sure the snap’s on target. You can’t allow a block. There’s nobody back deep for Michigan State …”
That’s how ESPN play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough began his call of the final seconds between Michigan State and Michigan on Oct. 17, 2015, in Ann Arbor. Michigan led 23-21 and only needed to have Blake O’Neill get his punt away cleanly. Only …
What happened next is, well, one team’s legend and another’s infamy. It depends on your preferred color scheme: Green-and-White or Maize-and-Blue.
Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up a mishandled punt by O’Neill and rode a wave of teammates into the end zone for a 38-yard fumble return touchdown that won the game for Michigan State, 27-23, and stunned the Wolverines faithful, who were the vast majority among the 111,740 in attendance at Michigan Stadium.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said at the time, in the aftermath of a seventh win against Michigan in eight years. “You go from 10 seconds and the guy punting the ball to you thinking “OK, this is done” and then all of a sudden, life gets flipped upside down. We come out on the top end of it.”
The teams renew the rivalry at noon ET on Saturday, this time at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. The circumstances resemble little from a year ago. Then it was Michigan State at 6-0 and ranked No. 7 in the country. Michigan was a revived team under Harbaugh, in his first season leading his alma mater. The Wolverines were ranked No. 12 with a 5-1 record. This season, it’s Michigan (7-0) that is undefeated and ranked No. 2 nationally, while Michigan State (2-5) has lost five in a row for the first time since 1991.
Nothing, however, can wipe away the memory of those final 10 seconds.
“As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen a game end like that,” then-Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook said in his post-game news conference. “You have the Auburn-Alabama game but, I mean, there was no way anyone who was watching this game, there was no shot for to win. For that to happen, to go down, just kind of a loss for words.”
To reset the scene:
- Michigan’s defense had stopped Michigan State on fourth down at the Michigan 45-yard line with one minute, 47 seconds left to play in regulation.
- “This could be the biggest play of the season for these two teams.” – McDonough before Cook’s pass attempt to Macgarrett Kings went incomplete on fourth-down.
- The Spartans had just one time out left. They used it after a 5-yard run on first down by De’Veon Smith.
- Smith ran for two more yards on second down. Harbaugh let the clock run down to 56 seconds and called his second timeout.
- Smith got the ball again on third down. He was stopped by linebackers Darien Harris and Jon Reschke after a 1-yard gain, bringing up fourth down. Harbaugh again let the clock run down as far as he could and called his final timeout before getting a delay of game penalty. That was with 10 seconds left.
“We were just focused. We understood giving our offense another opportunity. As a defensive unit we don’t want them to get first downs even if it is the last situation of the game,” then-Michigan State defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “I just think we had the mindset that we weren’t going to allow a first down. We were going to leave it to them to punt the ball and give our offense another opportunity, or our special teams another opportunity, to make a big play.”
O’Neill had performed well during the game. He had averaged 44.6 yards on seven previous punts, including an 80-yard boot. Three of his previous punts had landed inside the Michigan State 20. He wouldn’t need anything that substantial to get the job done.
“Tell your punter to one-step it. Don’t take your normal steps. One-step it, get it out.” – ESPN analyst Chris Spielman.
Michigan State didn’t hide its intentions. The Spartans had 10 players line up ready to rush. Monty Madaris lined up over a gunner on the left side of Michigan State’s alignment. Michigan had another gunner to the opposite side but the Spartans left him uncovered. Michigan lined up four players near the long snapper, two on either side with widened splits. Maybe if Harbaugh has one of his timeouts left, he calls it then and adjusts his alignment. But he didn’t have a timeout to call.
Three players – tight end Jake Butt, offensive lineman Ben Braden and defensive end Chris Wormley – were set up as protectors halfway between the line of scrimmage and O’Neill.
“Woah, he has trouble with the snap. And the ball is free.” – McDonough.
All 10 Michigan State players made a bee-line for O’Neill. Grayson Miller, whose father John once had four interceptions for the Spartans in a game against Michigan, got there first. Matt Morrissey and Andrew Dowell were less than a step behind. O’Neill threw the ball up for grabs. Watts-Jackson grabbed it.
“I took my normal set. I saw some guys rushing, I went to block my man and I didn’t hear a punt go off. I turned around and started running,” Butt said this week.
“I think at the end of the day, I thought it was going to be a regular punt,” Wormley said. “I thought our punter was going to get it off. When I didn’t hear the ball go off his foot – you can hear that in the back – it didn’t go off and I turned around and by that point the ball was 30 yards down the field.”
“It’s picked up by Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson. And he scooorres on the laast plaay of the gaaame. Unbelievable.” – McDonough, his voice crackling with disbelief.
Thirty-nine seconds passed before McDonough or Spielman could utter another word. ESPN allowed its cameras to tell the story.
“Michigan State is still the big boy on the block in the state of Michigan.” – McDonough’s first words back.
Michigan’s Wayne Lyons had a shot at stopping or slowing down Watts-Jackson, but Keith Edmondson cleared Lyons out of the way. Watts-Jackson angled his way inside of that congregation and made it to the end zone. Butt hit him at the 2-yard line but Watts-Jackson’s momentum was already too great to stop. It was the only time Michigan State led the entire game.
“In a lot of our minds, we thought ‘Hey, there’s only (10) seconds for him to punt the ball off,” Wormley said. “We’re going to get this ‘W’ and enjoy a big win.’ But you can’t take it like that.”
“Yeah, we messed it up. Just didn’t field the snap cleanly and we saw the rest. The team fought their guts out and played good enough to win and we didn’t get the winning result,” said Harbaugh on Michigan’s post-game radio show.
Watts-Jackson suffered a dislocated and fractured hip on the play. He flung the ball away after the score, writhing in pain as his teammates celebrated around him and some on top of him before they realized he was severely injured.
Khari Willis was one of the 10 Spartans rushing O’Neill and one of the nine who helped escort Watts-Jackson to the end zone.
“I believe in my team with 10 seconds left to go,” Willis said. “I believe in them with 10 seconds left to go. But hopefully we can play a good game (Saturday) to where we can secure a win before that.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo