Michigan lined up with five men on the line, three more eight yards behind them, one gunner split wide on each side and fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill 16 yards deep.
Michigan State was bringing the house.
The Wolverines faced 4th-and-2 from the Michigan State 47, leading 23-21. Just 10 seconds remained on the clock. Michigan was 10 seconds away from exorcising its demons against the Spartans, 10 seconds away from proving its legitimacy for another week, 10 seconds away from becoming a national championship contender.
That’s how quickly everything changed.
With just those 10 seconds on the clock, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sent out the punt team to finish the job. The Wolverines regained possession with 107 seconds to play and managed to drain 97 of them before facing fourth down. One snap and one punt into the end zone should have done it.
So many bad memories from the past would have been erased. The examples are plentiful.
Last September, Minnesota rolled into town and dominated Michigan. With the Wolverines drained on their sideline at the end of the game, the Golden Gophers came over and took the Little Brown Jug to start celebrating. Any opponent came into Michigan Stadium and did anything it pleased.
Ten more seconds Saturday, and Michigan could have done the same thing with Paul Bunyan.
Last year, in the same game, Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden put a stake in the ground at Spartan Stadium. The Spartans felt disrespected, so they scored an extra touchdown at the end of the game to run up the score. They, too, did anything they pleased.
Ten more seconds Saturday, and Michigan could have proven that would no longer fly.
The Wolverines were about to become a top-10 team with a 6-1 record and a win over a rival that had embarrassed them each of the past two years. Instead, 10 seconds later, they were 5-2, where a lot of people thought they would be at this point before the season.
With nine seconds left, redshirt sophomore long snapper Scott Sypniewski sent a low snap toward O’Neill. With 10 players against five on the line, five Spartans shed their blocks almost immediately.
With eight seconds left, on the eighth punt attempt, everything went wrong. The snap came to O’Neill just below his knees, and he dropped it. Now nine Michigan State players were headed for him.
O’Neill turned around with his back toward the line and was swarmed by Spartans. He picked up the ball, dropped it and tried to kick it forward to get something, anything at all. A play that once looked like a cherry on top was now an emergency.
“After he bobbled it, he still thought he could get the ball kicked,” Harbaugh said. “It was a mistake. A mistake was made. Mistakes were made.”
As O’Neill dropped the ball to kick it, a Michigan State player hit him to change his momentum, sending the ball floating toward the Michigan sideline. The stadium went silent. Seven seconds left.
The ball hung in the air before landing in the hands of Michigan State third-string safety Jalen Watts-Jackson, who eluded a block from Michigan redshirt junior offensive lineman Ben Braden. The stadium descended into chaos. Six seconds left.
Watts-Jackson immediately started toward the end zone. Now the Spartans were the ones blocking, and Michigan was suddenly chasing, in a game it had not trailed all day. Five seconds left.
Watts-Jackson was at the 30 now, with fifth-year senior defensive back Wayne Lyons at the 25 with the best chance to catch him. Braden came from the 30, junior tight end Jake Butt from the middle of the field. Four seconds left.
Watts-Jackson approached the 20, now with just one man to beat — Lyons. The graduate transfer shuffled his feet at the 20, trying to push Watts-Jackson toward the sideline. Michigan State cornerback Jermaine Edmondson put one last block on him. Three seconds left.
Lyons came within two arm’s lengths of Watts-Jackson, but Edmondson pushed him toward the sideline. Lyons got a hand on Watts-Jackson at the 12-yard line, but Edmondson kept going, and Watts-Jackson cut back toward the inside. Two seconds left.
Now there was a clear path to the end zone. Butt was catching up to him as a result of the cut back toward the middle of the field, but four blockers guarded Watts-Jackson as he reached the 5-yard line. One second left.
Butt wrapped his arms around Watts-Jackson at the two-yard line, and Lyons made one last reach. It was too late. Watts-Jackson started to go down, but his momentum carried him across the goal line. He landed just under the block ‘M’ in the corner of the end zone, right in front of the student section. Butt brought him down, but three Michigan State players landed on top of them. As a reward for his hustle, Butt ended up at the bottom of the Spartans’ celebration.
The clock struck zero. Three other players raised their hands up, and the rest of the team joined them in the end zone, then in the south end zone near their fan section, then back on their sideline. They kept control of the Paul Bunyan Trophy.
Ten seconds can change everything.