For years, the gold standard in Big House crowd-silencing was held by a man named Kordell Stewart.
On September 24, 1994, Stewart was the quarterback of then-fourth-ranked Colorado. He heaved the pigskin almost 75 yards in the air into the arms of teammate Michael Westbrook for a touchdown as time expired to beat the seventh-ranked Michigan Wolverines, 27-26. The “Miracle at Michigan” still astonishes 21 years later and often appears on lists of college football’s greatest finishes.
But on Saturday, the Michigan State Spartans might have topped that.
With 10 ticks showing on the clock and Michigan leading 23–21, an errant snap sailed through the hands of Michigan punter Blake O’Neill. As O’Neill tried to recover it, he made the situation worse. He hurled the ball five yards backwards as a green-and-white wave converged upon him.
Somehow the ball found its way into the hands of Spartan safety Jalen Watts-Jackson. And somehow, Watts-Jackson shed would-be tacklers and weaved through a mass of his own blockers to find the end zone—as well as a place in college football lore.
We have never seen anything quite like it before. Imagine the surprise of “Kick Bama Kick” (Auburn’s win in the 2013 Iron Bowl); the chaos of “The Play” (the 1982 Cal-Stanford game, which Cal won on a kickoff return that featured five laterals); and the sheer improbability of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State’s win over Oklahoma on a trick play in overtime). Now roll it all into one giant snowball of (circle one) awesomeness/heartbreak.
So what do we call this one? The “Michigan State Miracle” or “Michigan Mishap” both seem fit from either team’s perspective.
With less than two minutes left play, the fate of the Spartans seemed to have been sealed. The Wolverines prepared to kill the clock and break into a victory dance celebrating the win that was supposed to vault them firmly back into the national consciousness. Michigan State only had one timeout left, and was unable to prevent the Maize and Blue from running the clock almost all the way down as O’Neill readied to punt from around his own 40.
For Michigan fans — to borrow from Winston Churchill — what happened next was “the sum of their fears.”
Several sources declared Michigan State’s win probability at the time of the muffed punt to be 0.2% (1 in 500). This June, the New York Knicks were saddled with identical odds to win this season’s NBA title. So yes, using the word “unlikely” to describe it is a gross understatement.
Michigan dropped only to 15th in the AP Poll. And rightfully so. The Wolverines played their hearts out in a rivalry game.
But the Men of Sparta strutted into the Big House and unapologetically took advantage of the largest miscue committed in the Great State of Michigan since the invasion of Canada in the War of 1812.
With the W, Michigan State seemingly cleared the final hurdle to a potential Poll Bowl November 21 at Ohio State. And thanks to a little bit of good fortune, MSU can start thinking about not just a trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, but to things beyond.
Photos: Christian Petersen/Getty Images