Miracle 'Rocket' boosts Spartans to improbable victory over Badgers
EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Referee Dennis Lipski clicks on his mic late Saturday night and steels himself. "The ruling on the field," Lipski says, "is that the receiver was short of the goal line."
Lipski keeps talking. "The previous play," he says, "is under further review."
While replay official Tom Herbert looks at a play that will give Michigan State a 37-31 win against previously undefeated Wisconsin -- a play that will forever live in Spartan lore -- let's take a look at what the people on the field saw in the preceding seconds.
When Michigan State receiver Keith Nichol imagined this scenario as a child, he assumed he would be the one throwing the pass. After all, Nichol was a four-star quarterback recruit from Lowell, Mich., who signed with Oklahoma in 2007. In Norman, he got beat out by a guy named Sam Bradford. So Nichol transferred to Michigan State, where he got beat out by Kirk Cousins. Instead of seeking another school where he could play quarterback, Nichol was intrigued by coach Mark Dantonio's idea that he could put his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame and 37-inch vertical jump to good use as a wide receiver. As Nichol lines up along the right sideline on third-and-one from the Wisconsin 44-yard line with four seconds remaining and the score tied, he's thinking about another receiver.
At the goal line, Nichol sees a white No. 4. Isn't that Jared Abbrederis? What Nichol doesn't know is that Wisconsin's safeties have been smashed to pieces, and Badgers coach Bret Bielema had to send Abbrederis, one of his team's star receivers, to help guard the goal line in what Wisconsin calls its Victory Defense. "All right," Nichol thinks to himself. "Wideout versus wideout."
Near midfield, Cousins calls for the ball. Originally, he was supposed to roll left. During a timeout, Coach Mark Dantonio switched the play so that Cousins would roll right. The play is called Rocket. "We have a few different Rocket-type plays," Cousins says. "That last one was just straight-up Rocket."
When tailback Le'Veon Bell and right tackle Fou Fonoti team to pin Wisconsin defensive end Louis Nzegwu to the inside, Dantonio knows Cousins will have the time he needs to launch the ball into the end zone. Meanwhile, Nichol has run into trouble. The cornerback closest him tries to blast Nichol out of bounds at the 34 and keep him from reaching the end zone. Nichol absorbs the blow and keeps his feet.
Cousins wants to hit B.J. Cunningham, who has already caught six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown gave Michigan State its first lead after it erased a 14-0 deficit. Now, the Spartans have just blown a 14-point lead of their own. Unless Rocket works, this sucker is going to overtime, and Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson will take the field with all the momentum.
Everyone arrives in the end zone at once. Cunningham settles in behind Abbrederis. Abbrederis, who leads the Badgers with six catches for 91 yards on the offensive side, does what he knows. He turns back into a receiver. He sees the ball tumbling down and leaps. But Abbrederis has jumped too early. As he falls to earth, the ball sails over him and hits the precise player Cousins had targeted. "It bounced right off my face mask," Cunningham says.
The Spartans practice Rocket every Thursday, but with bodies flying everywhere, Saturday night looked nothing like all those non-contact Thursdays. "We don't even have a defense against it" in practice, Nichol says. Nichol keeps moving toward the end zone. He knows the ball has been deflected -- but not how.
At this point, the biggest moment of Nichol's football life is one big game of Jackpot. Remember Jackpot? They might have called it 500 at your elementary school, but the concept is the same. A quarterback heaves the ball into the air and calls out a point value. Everyone else bashes each other and tries to catch the ball. "I was running and just trying to get to my spot," he says. "I just kind of ran through the ball. Once I knew I caught it, I knew with my momentum going forward that it was going to be a touchdown." Jackpot, indeed.
As the ball settles into his hands, Nichol surges forward. "I thought I was going to catch it and roll in," he says. "I didn't really see anybody when I caught the ball." Then he feels himself being yanked backward. Linebacker Mike Taylor and cornerback Antonio Fenelus have him in their grasp, and they throw Nichol back and ride him to the ground.
Spartan Stadium roars, then goes quiet. Without the slightest hesitation, the officials mark the ball short of the goal line.
Nichol is sure he crossed the goal line. "My stomach almost dropped," he says. "Not like this. You can't lose like this. You can't go to overtime in a game you should have put away." Still, Nichol understands. "I think it was probably the safer bet on their part," he says. "Just call it out and look at the replay."
Nichol's father, Gary, has one nagging doubt. Gary has a seat along the goal line, but he couldn't see if his son had caught the ball cleanly. If he bobbled the ball as he crossed the line, the ruling wouldn't be overturned. "I was clear as I am talking to you right now that the ball crossed the line," Gary says. "I was clear that it was No. 7 had the ball when he crossed the line. ... The possession thing was what I was holding my breath on."
Meanwhile, back near the sideline, Cousins has his own opinion of what transpired. "I did not think he was in," Cousins says. "I just thought that the ref was right there and he had a good enough sight of it. If he said it's not in, it probably wasn't." Wanting affirmation, Cousins walked to an ESPN cameraman, who could hear through his headphones the discussion of the workers in the production truck as they watched the various replays. Cousins asked the cameraman for the consensus in the truck. "From what we're hearing," Cousins remembers the cameraman saying, "he's in."
Seconds later, Lipski clicks on his mic one more time.
"After further review," he says. "The runner did cross the line."
Dantonio jumps for joy. "I got up, man. I got up," he says. "Didn't you see me go up?" Thirteen months ago, after a fake field goal called Little Giants -- run into the same corner of the same end zone Nichol scored in Saturday -- beat Notre Dame, Dantonio had a heart attack. He isn't worried about another night in the hospital. "I may be out in the parking lot tonight," he says with laugh.
Nichol looks for the ball he caught, but someone has snatched it. He runs to celebrate with his teammates. Cornerback Darqueze Dennard grabs him and reminds him of the words former Spartans linebacker Greg Jones always said. "Big players," Dennard screams into Nichol's ear, "make big plays."
Nichol has blown up Twitter. Even the professionally famous have noticed his catch. "
In the locker room, Dantonio hands Nichol the missing pigskin. For the next half-hour, Nichol keeps it tucked tight in the crook of his elbow as if working a ball security drill. He grips it as he goes through interviews, as he tries to assign meaning to a play that sprang straight out of his childhood dreams. "You can't say that one play is going to validate a huge move from quarterback to wide receiver," he says. "Consistency and winning games validates that. Obviously, it's something I'll remember for the rest of my life. Hopefully, Spartan Nation remembers it for a long time."
Spartan Nation will remember forever. So will Nichol, who made plans to finally part with the ball in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
"I'm going to give it to my mom," he says.