Anatomy of a miracle: MSU leaves Michigan in shock with last-second heroics


ANN ARBOR. Mich. – Not an hour after the improbable, an hour after everything, they were already filming television standups in the northwest corner of Michigan Stadium, in that-now famous corner of the end zone of this forever-famous football cathedral where Jalen Watts-Jackson became an all-time Michigan State legend and then promptly dislocated his hip.

It finished Michigan State 27, Michigan 23, and the hero of the game, a redshirt freshman out of Dearborn, got to celebrate in the hospital, which is somehow oddly fitting considering the afternoon of violence that he ended. It was maybe because he was tackled as he crossed the goal line with the winning score or maybe because of the ensuing dog pile out of the Spartans' wildest imagination.

So, yes, the news crews were going to stand there at ground zero and try to make sense of it all, stand there and memorialize a patch of turf that will be pointed to and recalled forever and ever around these parts, either with disgust or delirium depending on whom is doing the recalling.

This was a bitter and brutal afternoon of football befitting a restored rivalry, befitting Jim Harbaugh's return, befitting Mark Dantonio's resolve, befitting in-state and in-your-face, where one game meant so much more to so many on both sides.

"Intense," Dantonio would say. "Intense."

The game wasn't over when Watts-Jackson went running out on the field as part of the punt coverage unit, but you could see it from here. Michigan led by two. There were just 10 seconds remaining. It was fourth down so the Wolverines would have to punt, but the win probability was nearly 100 percent.

Michigan State celebrate in the end zone after  Jalen Watts-Jackson's game-winning punt block return. (Getty)
Michigan State celebrate in the end zone after Jalen Watts-Jackson's game-winning punt block return. (Getty)

In his first season, in just a matter of months, Harbaugh was on the verge of returning this series to its historical norm, of ending State's dream season and extending the Wolverines' run, all while establishing him as something close to a coaching god. It was 10 seconds away.

State was pretty much out of all ideas except one: drop no returner back and send the whole damn team, all 11 guys at Michigan punter Blake O'Neill. It was block the kick or perish.

O'Neill hails from Melbourne, Australia, and punts it in his country's style – a few steps and a low, line-drive blast. He's great at it, delivering an 80-yard line drive and roll in the first quarter. Had he kicked this one, with no Spartan back to stop it, every last second might have bled out. Even if it didn't, the Spartans were down to Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge standing on the sideline trying to draw up some pipe dream of a backyard play – "lateral and score," Cook said.

Even he knew it wouldn't work, so before the punt team ran out there, the quarterback began getting in his teammates' faces and screaming at them, "Hey, you've got to win this," Cook said he said. "You've got to go and win this ballgame."

"I mean … there was no shot for us to win," Cook said, "unless that went down."

That was an unmitigated Michigan disaster on so many levels.

It started with strategy. State actually rushed only 10, not 11, one Spartan lined up wide to block a Michigan wideout. That may have been a mistake, but not as big of one as Michigan sending not just one player wide right, but another wide left. Presumably they never realized that State didn't send a returner back because those players served no purpose, they'd voluntarily eliminated themselves from the play.

It left just eight Michigan blockers to hold off 10 furious Spartans, all of whom had their ears pinned back. Then another Michigan lineman made little more than a chip block before releasing in an effort to race down field. Another Michigan lineman engaged only a little longer before bailing, too. Now there were only six blockers.

So if the punt was successful, that's four Wolverines to tackle no one, four Wolverines to down the ball, and four less Wolverines to stop 10 Spartans about to collapse around the punter.

Then there was the execution, a low snap that O'Neill fumbled. He not only fumbled it, he fumbled it three yards toward the line of scrimmage, three yards closer to the State rush. Then he tried to pick it up off the ground. At that point, with this many and this much coming at him, with a 10-8 advantage of rushers to blockers, there was no way he was going to get the punt off. If it had bounced three yards to the right, or the left, or back, O'Neill may have realized it and not tried to punt.

The play was to fall on the ball, just secure it and just turn the ball over on downs, right about at the 40-yard line. It wasn't ideal, but ideal was dead. The 40 was still too far for State to hit a field goal into a stiff wind.

There would have been nothing left but a Hail Mary attempt, always possible but never probable.

Jalen Watts-Jackson is lifted onto a stretcher after being injured on his game-winning 38 yard TD. (Getty)
Jalen Watts-Jackson is lifted onto a stretcher after being injured on his game-winning 38 yard TD. (Getty)

Instead O'Neill scooped the ball up and tried to punt it as a wave of players, spirited by the fumble in front of them, descended.

"I was blitzing off the edge," Michigan State's Grayson Miller said when he saw the ball go to the ground. "And I hit the punter as he was fumbling it. Matt Morrissey and I."

O'Neill got hit mid-kick. One of the tacklers – Morrissey – had been one of the rushers who had to fend off just a chip block.

Then there was the luck. As O'Neill was hit, he was spun around and his right arm batted the ball up in the air. It went directly to the oncoming Watts-Jackson, who was able to snag it almost in-stride, never breaking forward momentum.

If the ball hits the ground, it might bounce in a different direction, or at least cause a delay of a second before a Spartan was able to advance it.

Instead, it was suddenly just Watts-Jackson, surrounded by a throng of teammates, and a sprint to the end zone.

"I just saw a white wave take it into the end zone," safety Khari Willis said.

"I was on the ground and I saw Jalen taking it," Miller said. "I couldn't believe it."

Now Michigan State had five blockers to form a caravan and just two Michigan players who had a chance to stop the disaster. If Watts-Jackson is tackled or forced out of bounds, especially inside the 10, the game clock likely runs out. Maybe not, but it would've been close.

"He kept running and running and running and I was like, he might as well just score a touchdown and jump in the end zone," Cook said.

Michigan's Wayne Lyons sprinted back but couldn't get a clean shot at Watts-Jackson. He desperately did everything though to try to jam up the play, but there was just one other Wolverine available, tight end Jake Butt, arriving too late, only able to tackle Watts-Jackson into the end zone.

The ref's arms rose. The clock hit zero. The State sideline charged onto the field. Watts-Jackson dropped the ball and appeared possibly in duress – already hurt? – as a pile of teammates landed on him. In the end, he was hurt somewhere along the way.

"I'm like, 'Jalen, you won us the game. The game is over,'" Willis said. "He couldn't get up."

Some Spartans just dropped to their knees. Others began to cry. Some wandered about in disbelief.

Jalen Watts-Jackson (20) runs toward the end zone for MSU's game-winning touchdown. (AP)
Jalen Watts-Jackson (20) runs toward the end zone for MSU's game-winning touchdown. (AP)

The Michigan sideline was a picture of depression, confusion, anger. What was won was lost, 59:50 seconds of blood and fight and ferocity, of bowing up and finally getting those guys, was gone in an instant. Players fell to the floor. Some went to console O'Neill. Some didn't know where to go, what to do.

Around this massive oval of a stadium there was stunned silence and hushed maize pom-poms. This was going to be a night to test the whiskey reserves. Suddenly it was a nightmare, except for that small gathering of State fans in the far end zone, jumping and hugging and cheering and asking each other if what they just saw really happened, repeating the question whipping around viewing parties and sports bars and dorms across the state, the nation even.

Did Michigan State actually win?

It had.

"It felt like a dream," Cook said.

Big House, oh, brother.

"Football is a crazy, crazy game," Dantonio said. "I can't explain it."

He never will. The Spartans are 7-0 and still with playoff aspirations, still with everything in front of them. Michigan is 5-2 and will have to find solace in the silence of an Ann Arbor night.

And down in that corner of this 88-year-old stadium, already the state of Michigan's most famous patch of land, the television crews were talking fast and filming the field turf – Jalen Watts-Jackson's patch of field turf.

By then, the stands were empty and the hero was in a hospital.

"I'm going to give him a hug," lineman Brian Allen said. "I love that kid."

The hip will heal.

It's everyone else in this state who may never recover.