This story appears in the Oct. 26, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
One play remained in Michigan State's 108th football game against Michigan, but Tom Izzo had seen enough. Michigan State's basketball coach left the Spartans' bench last Saturday with his son, Steven, and walked back up the tunnel, toward their car. Izzo could commiserate with football coach Mark Dantonio later. He wanted to get out of Ann Arbor before bedlam hit.
And bedlam was coming. Not far from Izzo, Kevin Sedatole heard state troopers discuss what to do when Michigan fans rushed the field. Sedatole, the director of bands at Michigan State, grabbed his 16-year-old daughter, Julia, to prepare for a quick, safe exit. There would be no postgame show on the field with the Michigan band. The Michigan State band would play "Victory for MSU" quickly and ironically and leave the stadium.
Or so Sedatole assumed, since the No. 12 Wolverines led No. 7 Michigan State 23–21 and just needed to punt the ball from Michigan State's 47-yard line to end the game. They had not beaten the Spartans since 2012. They had not won the Big Ten title since '04. But under new coach Jim Harbaugh they were about to improve to 6–1, with the lone loss at No. 3 Utah, and in Michigan Stadium, happy minds wandered. What was next? A win over No. 1 Ohio State? A conference championship? A spot in the College Football Playoff? How big could they dream?
On the Spartans' sideline, Dantonio weighed his options. He had no good ones. He could try to set up a return, but Michigan might simply punt out-of-bounds. Dantonio had thought all week that his team might be able to block a punt; Blake O'Neill is a rugby-style punter who takes a few steps to his right before unloading, which requires an extra second. Dantonio decided to send all 11 players at O'Neill and hope for a miracle. "We gotta go get it!" Dantonio told his team, as he later recalled to SI. "Get 11 guys up. Nobody back. If you rough the guy, it doesn't matter. You gotta lay out, and you've gotta go. This is our last shot.
"Scoop it if you get it."
Michigan had no reason to worry about executing. A grad student from Australia, O'Neill had impressed the coaches with his athleticism, and his hands are so sure that he is the holder on field goals. And the long snapper, junior Scott Sypniewski, is a rarity in college football: He was given a scholarship out of high school to perform that singular task. The Wolverines literally could not have been in better hands.
There were 10 seconds on the game clock and 17 seconds on the play clock when Sypniewski snapped the ball.
Cal-Stanford has The Play to Beat the Band (or to some, simply, The Play). Alabama-Auburn has the Kick Six. College football fans need no explanation for either.
Michigan-Michigan State now has the Shocked Punt: Sypniewski fires his snap low ... the ball bounces off O'Neill's hands ... O'Neill tries to pick it up and punt it anyway ... the ball goes sideways into the hands of Michigan State's freshman cornerback Jalen Watts-Jackson ... and Watts-Jackson bolts toward the end zone.
None of the 111,740 in attendance expected this. In the tunnel, Izzo heard the commotion and walked back down toward the field to see what was happening. On the sideline, Dantonio looked up and saw the seconds bleed away. He figured that Watts-Jackson had to get into the end zone; if he was tackled, time would expire before Michigan State could try a field goal.
How did it come to this? Not just the game. The rivalry. When Dantonio took the job in 2006, Michigan State had lost 29 of its last 37 games to Michigan. Everybody knew that the Wolverines' real rival was Ohio State. That was a blood feud. Michigan-Michigan State was a family spat.
Dantonio raised the stakes immediately. On one of his first days on the job he spoke at an all-state banquet and took a moment, mid-speech, to address the table full of Michigan coaches, saying, "We will be a player. I can promise you that."
The 59-year-old Dantonio usually cuts a bland figure for the media, speaking in a string of clichés, steady as a docked ship—unless Michigan is involved. Then he gets ornery. In 2007 he publicly warned Michigan that "the pride comes before the fall," and in '14 he admitted to pinning an extra touchdown on the Wolverines because the team had the audacity to plant a stake in the Spartan Stadium turf before the game. In other words, he is exactly the coach that East Lansing has always wanted. He needles the so-called Public Ivy and, more important, beats Michigan repeatedly.
Real rivals? As Watts-Jackson sprinted toward the Michigan student section, Dantonio was 6–2 against Michigan, and win number 7 was a few yards away. It got sweeter: Watts-Jackson is a product of Orchard Lake St. Mary's in the Detroit suburbs, a school that for decades sent its star players to Ann Arbor.
Michigan junior tight end Jake Butt started tackling Watts-Jackson at the two-yard line, with one second left. But by the time both men landed, they were in the end zone. Touchdown.
Michigan State 27, Michigan 23.
"Just an incredible ending to a great football game," Dantonio said. "And I think that's why football is loved so much in America."
As he said those words at his postgame press conference there was a steady drumbeat outside the room. The Michigan Marching Band was heading back up the tunnel where Izzo had stood, out to its on-campus building, Revelli Hall, to host a reception for the Michigan State band. If there was any iciness between the bands, neither director saw it. Many of the musicians know their counterparts on the other side. Sedatole used to work at Michigan, where he wrote a book, One Hundred Years of the Michigan Marching Band.
Even on its wildest day, with two outstanding teams, Michigan-Michigan State is still a family spat. And if anyone wants to know the difference between the Michigan-Michigan State and Michigan-Ohio State rivalries, maybe this explains it: Next month, Ohio State visits Michigan. There will be no reception for their band. There never is.
Wolverines special teams coach John Baxter walked through the parking lot outside the stadium, sipping a Diet Dr Pepper and processing what had happened. His unit had won the game—right up until the moment it lost it. Even Dantonio said afterward, "If we'd lost, I'd have said, 'We've got to play better on special teams.'"
O'Neill had boomed an 80-yard punt. Michigan's sophomore safety/returner Jabrill Peppers had brought back a kickoff 49 yards and a punt 34 yards. Michigan State tried a fake punt and Michigan stopped it. But on the simplest play of the game—a punt to nobody—Michigan fell apart.
"Welcome to the latest episode of Truth Is Stranger than Fiction," Baxter said. "That was the fluke of all flukes. And we'll choose to look at it that way. We do too many good things, and practice hard and play hard, and make too many plays."
Besides coaching football, Baxter is in charge of something called the Academic Game Plan. Baxter calls the program "a coaching approach to the game of school," and it is not football-related. He teaches players how to absorb information efficiently and thoroughly, how to improve their study habits and how to navigate life. Harbaugh loves it so much that he took Baxter off the road for much of the critical recruiting month of January so that he could teach it. Senior linebacker Joe Bolden said in the spring that Baxter's program "has immensely helped every single individual on the team."
Now the Wolverines were learning in the hardest way. Bolden had missed most of the rivalry game because of a questionable targeting penalty. Michigan "fans" on social media were harassing O'Neill, with some suggesting he commit suicide. And this is the fundamental difference between Michigan State's gift-six and Cal's run through the Stanford band or Auburn's return of a missed field goal: There was a single, obvious goat.
Before the snap hit O'Neill's hands, he was one of the best stories on Michigan's team. At a practice last week former Wolverines coach Lloyd Carr asked O'Neill about himself. O'Neill explained his technique and talked about his hometown of Melbourne. O'Neill did not play American football until last season, when the former Aussie Rules player attended Weber State. Perhaps if he grew up in the Michigan thumb or a Pennsylvania steel town or Texarkana, he would have instinctively covered the ball when he dropped it, leaving Michigan State with one last play from the Michigan 40-yard line. Instead, a punter who grew up almost 10,000 miles away will forever be associated with rivals who sit 65 miles apart.
Five years ago Michigan State beat Notre Dame 34–31 in East Lansing on a fake field goal in overtime, a play that Dantonio called Little Giants. The win helped establish Dantonio's program. That night, he had a heart attack.
On Saturday, less than an hour after his team won a crazier game against a bigger rival, Dantonio seemed downright sedate. He is more comfortable with his program and his accomplishments than he was after Little Giants; the Spartans are 31–3 in the last three years. There was a time when he would have bristled at questions about validation, but Saturday he seemed amused by one. "I hope that our football program's been validated now," he said evenly. "We've won 11-games-plus four times. We can play."
A few minutes later Dantonio stood in the visitors' locker room and pondered his new reality. His program no longer needed flukes to beat Michigan. But it got one anyway. And it was unlikely to send him to the hospital that night. "Football is a crazy game," he said. "I try to keep it in context with life in general, as much as anything."
Michigan fans trudged out of the old bowl, stunned. Even the few Michigan State fans seemed muted. A decade ago they would have gleefully celebrated any win over the Wolverines. But their standards have changed.
Five Dean Trailways buses waited to take the Michigan State players and staff back to East Lansing. Watts-Jackson would not get on any of them. He broke his left hip while being tackled on the final play and spent the night at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Dantonio walked through the parking lot carrying a Kentucky Fried Chicken box and a bottle of water. He climbed the steps and sat in the front row of bus number 1.
Above the end zone where Watts-Jackson scored, the corners of the video board were still lit with two small details: 17 seconds on the play clock, 0:00 on the game clock. The big screen was black.
When Dantonio arrived home, Izzo stopped by. Dantonio picked up his iPad and showed Izzo the film of the final play. Two of the finest coaches in their sports marveled at what had transpired. They told each other, "So many things had to happen."
The snap had to be low. O'Neill had to fumble it. He had to try punting instead of covering the ball. The ball had to go sideways, but not out-of-bounds. Watts-Jackson had to pick it up cleanly. Michigan cornerback Wayne Lyons had to put his hand on Michigan State junior Jermaine Edmondson, inadvertently alerting Edmondson to block Lyons. Watts-Jackson had to make it all the way to the end zone. Dantonio had to believe he could build a national power at Michigan State. His players had to believe he was right.