Sparty's surprise stars: The unlikely heroes who have fueled Michigan State's run to the Big Ten title game
EAST LANSING, Mich.—They have windmilled at him in a basketball arena, an entire student section winding their arms in exaggerated circles. They have windmilled at him while he shopped at a local grocery store. Strangers have sent him Facebook messages with videos of their nieces and nephews windmilling during Thanksgiving. On a recent drive through Iowa, one of his friends texted him a picture of the scenery along the road. It was just a big group of windmills.
"Wave hi back," she wrote.
As Michael Geiger stands in the trophy area of Michigan State's Skandalaris Football Center, he begins to laugh mid-sentence. Then he apologizes. Brad Lunsford, the Spartans executive director of football operations, is walking by. And he is windmilling.
"I'm going to be walking down the aisle, having to do the windmill," Geiger, a junior, says, "because I'm never going to escape it."
Some moments are worth being bound to for all of eternity. Michigan State has a roster featuring the Big Ten's quarterback of the year, receiver of the year and 10 other players who earned spots on the league's three all-conference teams. It also has a kicker who hit field goal to beat Ohio State on Nov. 21 and put the Spartans back in the national championship picture. It has two anonymous backup quarterbacks who played just well enough to survive that rainy day in Columbus. It has a reserve defensive back who scooped up a fumbled punt and ran it in for a game-winning touchdown before he broke his hip in the delirious aftermath.
Michigan State (11–1) will face unbeaten Iowa for the Big Ten championship on Saturday, with a College Football Playoff berth almost surely going to the winner. The Spartans' raft of all-league performers may have gotten them there. But their unsung heroes pushed them over the edge.
Before the season, coach Mark Dantonio gathered players, coaches and support staffers in a meeting room and issued his annual reminder that everyone has an important role. He could not know how prophetic his words would prove to be. "He always says someone is going to be the one," says redshirt junior Tyler O'Connor, one of the quarterbacks forced into action that afternoon at Ohio State. "You never know who is going to step up. It could be someone else next week, and your life can change just like that, in one play. And you don't even know it's coming."
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
On the night before the Ohio State game, Michigan State players watched The Waterboy, the 1998 Adam Sandler comedy about an ancillary member of a college football operation who surprisingly becomes an indispensible part of winning. As coincidences go, it was almost too perfect to be true, though this did not likely occur to O'Connor and sophomore Damion Terry as they digested the post-screening team snack of burgers, tater tots and milkshakes. The pair of backup quarterbacks spent the week splitting first-team reps in place of injured starter Connor Cook, but no one had told them anything definitive about the plans for the next day. It was nearing 10 p.m. when they left the meal unaware their plates were about to be full again.
"Come with me," Dantonio told them.
The players went to the elevator with their head coach, who used his key to access his floor and then invited his quarterbacks to sit on the couch in his room. He then laid out the plan. Cook's shoulder injury was going to prevent him from playing Saturday; the senior simply couldn't throw with enough velocity. The Spartans were going to use both O'Connor and Terry, who had thrown a combined 14 passes all year, and who merely had to do enough to beat the defending national champions on the road and end their 23-game winning streak.
"That's coach D's method," O'Connor says. "Sudden change is something he preaches around here."
Perhaps by design, Dantonio left his backups with essentially no time to contemplate what lay ahead. O'Connor, a native of Lima, Ohio, called his parents— "You're going to be seeing a lot more of me tomorrow," he told them—and told a former roommate and then quickly fell asleep.
Terry was slightly more energized. He returned to his room and felt inspired to watch the movie Little Giants, so he opened his MacBook and searched for a link and played it with the lights out and the laptop volume on, because his wireless Beats headphones were charging across the room. "I turned it real low, though," Terry says. "I pretty much remember every line."
When O'Connor took the field for Michigan State's first offensive snap the next day, the better part of 108,000-plus people at Ohio Stadium cheered. And no one would inspect the final numbers of the 17–14 win over the Buckeyes and forget what the Spartans were missing at the position. O'Connor was 7 of 12 for 89 yards with one touchdown. Terry completed one pass and fumbled once. Both ran for 25 yards. Michigan State connected on just one pass after halftime. But the ability to avoid costly mistakes that would torpedo the season was a seismic victory in itself.
Icon Sportswire via AP Images
If the Spartans couldn't predict how O'Connor and Terry would react in Columbus, they nevertheless might have maintained confidence that the backups could handle the pressure. "We all watch film together, leading up before meetings," Cook says. "Then during meetings obviously we're all in the same room watching the tape, and then we all get together and watch tape with our offensive coordinator as well, so they do a great job during the week of preparing. It's all on their shoulders. If anything, I was just out in practice trying to help them, encourage them, tell them about read progressions and what to expect defensively."
"If you're a backup at any other position, you are most likely going to play in that game," Terry says. "Quarterback, that's not really the case. We just attack it every week, always trying to make practice a game-like situation. You have to be ready at all moments."
They were not entirely ready for what followed. O'Connor was pleasantly surprised by the reaction of his fellow Ohio natives, given his hand in destroying their favorite team's dreams; his friends at the game pulled Michigan State jerseys over the red ensembles when the Spartans were on offense, and most messages he received were of the If the Buckeyes were going to lose, I'm glad you had something to do with it variety. The volume of attention was a little striking, though, be it in the form of texts from long-lost acquaintances or a social media tsunami.
"The Twitter messages—I can't even imagine being Connor," Terry says.
A week later, Cook was back as the starter in the Nov. 28 regular-season finale against Penn State, leading a blowout 55–16 victory that clinched a Big Ten East Division title and trip to Indianapolis this weekend. Had his understudies not stepped up, though, he never would have had the chance. There is satisfaction in that, especially for O'Connor, who has bided his time behind a future first-round NFL draft pick, living an existence in which his team's best-case scenario is that he hardly ever plays.
He thinks back to the quarterbacks he competed against during Elite 11 events in the summer of 2011, and how many have since transferred to other schools. He thinks about how he stayed even with a grand total of 30 attempted passes in his first three years in East Lansing. And maybe that's why, after the receiving the news that he would start Michigan State's most consequential game of the year, O'Connor returned to his hotel room and rested so easy.
"You're waiting for something to pay off," O'Connor says. "It's awesome to stay here and be in the position I'm in, for it to pay off like that in a big-time game, on a team like this. Which has a chance to do something Michigan State hasn't done in a long, long time."
It was a cold day, so Geiger pulled up his hood as he left the College of Engineering building and walked toward the sidewalk along Shaw Lane, the busy thoroughfare which threads through the north sector of campus. Only a couple of days had passed since his dramatic, game-winning, 41-yard field goal at Ohio State and his ensuing celebratory antics. But at 5' 8", with his head mostly sheathed, he looked decidedly ignorable. For the windmill man, getting to his next destination unrecognized should have been a breeze.
Then a bicycle entered his view, speeding along in the dedicated lane next to the sidewalk. The rider squeezed the brakes and came to a sudden halt. He looked at Geiger.
"Dude," he said. "Nice. Kick."
"It's the little things like that," Geiger says, "that have been astonishing."
To declare the Spartans placekicker an unexpected hero for this season is perhaps a bit imprecise. Two years ago, Geiger set a school record by making 93.8% of his attempts, hitting 15 out of 16 tries. He has been quite capable of making field goals for some time, even if his efficiency had dipped since that first-year splash; as he jogged out to his spot with three seconds left against Ohio State, Geiger had made just 22 of his last 35 attempts between 2014 and '15. Regardless, he already ranks sixth all-time in school history in points scored with 272.
"We send the big guns out there from first down to third down," Geiger says. "I always embraced my role as, if the offense is gong to fail, I have to bail them out. If they can't get seven points with Connor and [receiver Aaron Burbridge] and our playmakers, I have to be the reassurance. They need to lean on me sometimes."
The unexpected part, then, is relative: Unexpected that Michigan State would lean so exclusively on its kicker in the moment that definitively set it on the path toward a championship. Unexpected, frankly, that the team would put Geiger in position to win the game in the gloaming at Ohio Stadium. Unexpected that he would sprint away after the kick with his right arm rotating furiously, surely unexpected that an adrenalized Geiger would drop an expletive in his postgame radio assessment of the situation ("It was the biggest kick of my life and I [bleeping] nailed it") and most definitely unexpected that he would become an instant celebrity.
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Geiger couldn't even go to a basketball game on a Tuesday night with friends—a Michigan State game for which he bought tickets, he emphasizes—without looking up in the second half and seeing his mug on the Breslin Center video board as the expectant crowd roared.
"You gotta give them the windmill," the people sitting behind him screamed.
So, yes, for the second time in four days, Geiger gave every Michigan State fan what they wanted.
"Honestly," he says, "it's been amazing."
Geiger isn't sure people understand the depth of it. Midway through the fourth quarter at Ohio State, he communicated to Dantonio and the other coaches that if it came down to a kick, he preferred the ball on the right hash, given the hard right-to-left wind that was blowing. When Michigan State drove to the 23-yard line, settled on that right hash and called timeout with three seconds remaining, Geiger told junior holder Matt Macksood that the Buckeyes would likely ice him with at least one of their timeouts, which they did.
As the Spartans broke the huddle, Dantonio approached Geiger. When the officials blew the whistle to restart the game, the Spartans coach handed his kicker an index card. The writing on it was a bit smudged, the card a bit wet, and Geiger had no time to decipher it anyway. He figured, generally, that it was important. He just didn't know why.
"I'm just like, 'Thanks for the piece of paper, coach,'" he says. Then Geiger had to find a place to put it. He couldn't holster it anywhere in his pants. So, he stuffed it in his handwarmer, hopeful it wouldn't fall out, whatever transpired in the coming moments.
It didn't. And once Geiger found some quiet, he inspected his soggy gift. It was Dantonio's pregame prayer card, with handwritten lines from the Spartans coach. The card is back in Geiger's apartment with the game ball and a special teams award for that week—"I'm slowly accumulating a shrine," he says—and he couldn't remember the exact words scribbled on it as he recounted this story. But he could paraphrase the last few lines, on the back of the paper his coach handed him before the biggest moment of his career.
You have nothing else to do but relax, it reads, per Geiger's recollection. Go out and beat OSU.
We might have known this Michigan State team was enchanted in some way or another way back on Oct. 17, when an otherwise harmless punt snap left the hands of Michigan's Blake O'Neill. We might have known it when Jalen Watts-Jackson, a cornerback who redshirted in 2014 and who recorded five tackles in the first seven games of '15, scooped up the bounding ball and began to run. We might have known it when Watts-Jackson made it to the end zone 38 yards later, flanked by a convoy of Spartans' blockers. We might have known it when he fractured his hip as he was taken to the ground at the end of one of the most improbable turns in college football history, his final act of the season effectively saving his team for the time being.
"No one woke up the day of the Michigan game like, 'Yeah, Jalen Watts is going to score the winning touchdown,'" Terry says of the Spartans' 27–23 victory. "You never know when your time is up. You have to be ready when it comes."
It was as Watts-Jackson, who wasn't available for this story, told reporters in East Lansing from a wheelchair a few days later: In 10 seconds, he went from a guy who was merely on the team to "people tweeting and text messaging you, saying you're a legend, you're a hero." No, he could not have anticipated it.
Next it was a pair of backup quarterbacks on the road against the defending champs, and then it was the kicker who had scuffled for a year or so. Michigan State's accidental heroes, considered as a whole and not as lightning bolts striking in the moment, don't seem so accidental.
The Spartans are here after losing starting senior linebacker Ed Davis during preseason camp. They are here after various maladies struck at a veteran offensive line that is only now rounding into full health. They are here because everyone extracted the dead tissue left by a loss on a cold night in Lincoln, Neb.—a 39–38 defeat on Nov. 7 that came via a controversial last-minute touchdown—and then won three straight to earn their place in Indianapolis.
They are here because they close their wounds quickly, thanks to especially effective healing agents.
"We tell the twos that you're not twos, you're ones, because you're going to play just as much as the ones do, and we need you just as much as we need them," senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun says. "Everyone is important. Regardless of if you're a starter or not."
Michigan State is here, on the cusp of a playoff berth, because a few unlikely saviors came through when their team needed them most. So, who knows what might happen Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium? Will yet another unheralded name windmill himself into program lore? As the Spartans know now, even the weightiest moments can be seized by someone who seems like nobody at all.