By Ashley Scoby
Out of 111,740, not one of them knew what to do.
Michigan Stadium was still close to capacity, hardly anyone streaming to the exits. Most just stood there, wondering if they all were having the same bizarre dream.
Michigan had essentially won the game, in a sport where “essentially” is never good enough. Leading 23-21, and only 10 seconds remaining, all it had to do was punt the ball away from near midfield, and most of those 111,740 would go home happy.
“When we lined up to punt, they (Michigan State) didn’t have any returners,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It was just a matter of catching it and punting it.”
Oh, yeah – that small detail.
As many other football disasters have begun, the snap was low. Blake O’Neill, who had otherwise had an outstanding night (seven punts for an average of 44.6 yards, including an 80-yard bomb), bobbled the ball. He ran to retrieve it, tried to pick it up.
He spun around, the ball slipping out towards the wall of Spartans who saw just a sliver of a miracle unfolding. Seven seconds. Jalen Watts-Jackson plucked the ball out of the air near the Michigan 37-yard-line, six seconds. He and four other Spartans sprinted for their lives.
Jermaine Edmonson kept the last remaining Michigan defender at bay, springing Watts-Jackson into the end zone.
A pile of Michigan State players toppled into the end zone, the winners of what will remain on the stat sheet as a 27-23 win, but what will remain in memory as one of the wildest finishes in recent college football.
“It just happened so fast,” said Michigan fullback Sione Houma, who ran for two touchdowns. “I think everybody is still taking it in. It’ll probably hit us by tomorrow.”
“They played their guts out, played winning football, overcame so much and messed up just the play at the end,” Harbaugh said. “Very unfortunate.”
Most of those in attendance stood around in silence, not believing what had just happened. The Wolverines had led for the entire game, until time literally ran out. A Kenny Allen field goal had given them a 23-14 lead with 9:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But as soon as Michigan State took possession, they faked an end-around and found a wide-open Trevon Pendleton – the 250-pound fullback, at that – who rumbled 74 and a half yards before being brought down just before the goal line. LJ Scott punched it in from there, and it was a two-point game.
The Spartans forced a three-and-out but couldn’t get points on the ensuing possession. They forced another punt, but couldn’t convert a fourth-and-19 as time creeped towards the two-minute mark.
And the third punt Michigan State forced was the one that mattered, the living proof that the synergy between a snapper and punter can often mean more than that of a quarterback and his receivers.
“We just find a way and I think it’s a culture that we have on our football team, and our guys just continue to play and we believe in each other,” Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said. “If we lost, we lost, but I knew that we played as hard as we could and we left it on the field.”
Michigan State, which had steadily dropped in the polls this year after several less-than-awe-inspiring wins, decided to make up for all of it in one night. The Spartans have now won seven of their last eight games against Michigan
“For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen a game end like that,” said Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who finished 18-of-39 for 328 yards and a touchdown. “I mean, there was no way – anyone who was watching this game – there was no shot for us to win, and then for that to happen and go down, it’s kind of lost for words.”