As Michigan and Michigan State lined up for the play that changed one game, and potentially two seasons, Connor Cook had only a sliver of hope.
Michigan State’s fifth-year senior quarterback was hoping he would get the ball back. He was hoping he could try a lateral play. He was hoping he might have a prayer.
On fourth down from the Spartans’ 47-yard line, Blake O’Neill lined up to punt. If everything went well for Michigan State, it would have one shot. Maybe two.
It went better than well for the Spartans. The snap to O’Neill was low, and when he tried to pick it up, he bobbled it. Suddenly, Cook’s expectations changed.
“Once we saw him drop the ball, and then all of the sudden it got hit and blocked, I was hoping that one of our guys was going to get tackled soon so we could kick a field goal — clock would stop,” Cook said after the game.
Jalen Watts-Jackson did him one better. O’Neill fumbled the ball right to Watts-Jackson, who began sprinting down the sideline. And as all the life drained out of Michigan Stadium, he dove into the end zone, a tackler wrapped around him and an entire team chasing him.
According to Dantonio, Watts-Jackson either dislocated or broke his hip. In the process, he sealed the most exciting, heart-wrenching finish in the recent memory of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry.
“Honestly, it just felt like a dream,” Cook said.
Watts-Jackson couldn’t comment on the play. He was taken to the hospital immediately following the game, which ended with the most sudden change of any this season. ESPN reported Michigan State had a 0.2% win probability before the play, the lowest of any winning team this season.
“This is the epitome of our whole — our offense, our defense and our special teams — our program,” said Spartans defensive end Shilique Calhoun after the game. “We’re never going to quit. We’re going to keep working hard, keep pushing forward and look for that win, even when it’s cloudy in there and no one else is giving us a shot.”
On the Michigan State athletics website, Watts-Jackson’s collegiate profile is this:
“Second-year player provides depth at safety.
“2014 Season: Redshirted. … selected Scout Team Defensive Player of the Week vs. Indiana”
That’s it. It’s safe to say it’s due an upgrade. Cook may have a suggestion for how to quantify this one play’s significance.
“To win in that fashion, when there was 10 seconds left, they were getting ready to punt, you know … game was over,” Cook said. “And then, you know, that happened.
“Obviously the Cotton Bowl was crazy, but it wasn’t as crazy as this. The Rose Bowl was fine and dandy, but it wasn’t like anything spectacular happening like this. I would have to say compared to those victories, I would say this one is a little bit (sweeter).”
Dantonio was so overcome with emotion that he missed the postgame handshake. He ran to join his players, and he missed a chance to give his regards to Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
But perhaps the most ironic thing about the ending was that Michigan State’s special teams had been hurting it all game. Redshirt freshman Jabrill Peppers accumulated 129 return yards for the Wolverines, consistently giving them advantageous field position.
“We said we had to come up with plus-one big play on special teams,” Dantonio said. “So we just waited til no time on the clock to get it. But we got the right one. We got the one that eventually won it for us.”
Even as the play unfolded, Dantonio wasn’t convinced it would win the Spartans the game until Watts-Jackson was in the end zone.
“As we scooped it up, I thought if we could get down and maybe have one second to kick it,” Dantonio said. “And then I saw the zeroes go up and I knew we had to score, and he scored.
“Things like this happen. Every now and then, they happen.”
On Saturday, this happened, even if it was nearly impossible to believe.