ANN ARBOR, Mich. — College football, you win.
Move over, Auburn field-goal return.
Step aside, Boise State Statue of Liberty play.
You have company in the HOW COULD THAT HAVE HAPPENED Hall of Fame.
Michigan had a 23–21 lead on rival Michigan State with 10 seconds left. The Spartans had 11 men on the line of scrimmage—there was no return and no thought of a return. Michigan just had to get a decent punt off and stop one desperate, beyond-Hail-Mary-range pass to beat its rival for the first time in four years and climb into the playoff picture. Instead …
You will not believe the “instead.”
The snap was low—the kind of bad snap that nobody notices if the punter fields it cleanly. But Michigan punter Blake O’Neill bobbled it. O’Neill could have just covered the ball and given Michigan State one chance to throw a deep pass for the win. And maybe if O’Neill grew up in the Michigan thumb or a Pennsylvania steel town or Texarkana, he would have done that instinctively. But O’Neill is Australian. This is only his second year of playing American football.
O’Neill tried to punt. From the stands or on TV, you could tell this was a mistake. But even then, it was hard to imagine what would happen next.
The punt was sideways—the play had collapsed by that point. It went right to Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who didn’t even need to bend down and pick it up. Watts-Jackson took off for the end zone.
On the sideline, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio looked up. He was hoping this meant his team could at least try a game-winning field goal (though with the state of his kicking game right now, no kick is a sure thing). Then Dantonio saw this:
Michigan State would either score a touchdown or lose.
Watts-Jackson made it into the end zone. And apparently as he fell, he either dislocated or broke his hip. He was on his way to the hospital before his teammates left the stadium.
“I didn’t know what was happening, man,” Dantonio said. “I was with all of you. Some green, some blue … everybody’s mouths probably just dropped open.”
So Michigan State won, 27–23. The Spartans remain undefeated and in the national title hunt, though frankly neither team really looked like a national champion for most of the day.
Dantonio said “life turned upside down” on one play, and nobody seemed to know if they should act like it was right-side up. It was a fluke play, by any measure. A gift. Sometimes, great, intense, close games come down to a gift. But Michigan State couldn’t really act like it had stuck it to arrogant Michigan again, and Michigan couldn’t just admit it had been outplayed.
“A little numb,” Dantonio said. “It’s a good numb.”
He then added: “I very much respect the University of Michigan and what Coach (Jim) Harbaugh has done here thus far, and the direction they’re going. And they played a great game.”
And Harbaugh said: “What do you say about the final play? It was unfortunate. Didn’t get the result. They played really well played winning football, competed like maniacs, both teams did. It was a heckuva game. Played winning football, didn’t get the result. Welcome to football. Move forward.”
The teams can move forward, but the fan bases will remember this for decades. And it may be the start of the best years of the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry.
Like a lot of rivalries, Michigan-Michigan State was built on disrespect, both real and perceived. For long stretches, Michigan was the far superior program, and its fans could act like Michigan State was a second-class rival. But under Mark Dantonio, Michigan State quickly surpassed Michigan. Dantonio was 6–2 against Michigan entering this game, and each game seemed to follow a familiar storyline: Michigan would act like it was getting ready to “restore order” to the rivalry, Dantonio would use all the slights to motivate his team, and then Michigan State would outplay and outcoach Michigan.
Most damning of all for Michigan was that Michigan State always seemed to be the tougher team. By miles. Before Dantonio, when Michigan State would beat Michigan, it would do so on a bizarre play, an otherworldly individual performance or a questionable officiating call. Under Dantonio, the Spartans simply kicked the Wolverines’ butt.
It is hard to find an era when both programs were consistent Big Ten contenders. This may be the start of one.
Unlike most of Dantonio’s wins over Michigan, this was not a butt-kicking, and he knows it as well as anybody. Harbaugh and his players can go to sleep tonight knowing that.
Of course, the Wolverines probably won’t be able to sleep.
And the Spartans won’t want to.