One-hundred and eleven thousand stunned sets of eyes stared at the field below. A sea of green and white flooded into the northwest corner of the field.
For five whole minutes, no one else in Michigan Stadium moved.
None of those eyes had ever seen a game end like that before, and likely never will again.
Michigan State 27, Michigan 23.
In a game that featured eight official reviews — including four on scoring plays — plenty of calls and non-calls that drew boos from the crowd and referees even admitting they messed up with their microphones on, the Michigan football team’s game against No. 7 Michigan State added an odd and awkward twist to the historic rivalry.
So it was only fitting that the game ended in never-before-seen fashion when fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill — a hero earlier in the game for an 80-yard punt — couldn’t turn a low snap into what should have been a game-sealing punt, instead giving Michigan State the ball for a 38-yard touchdown return as time expired.
“They played their guts out,” said Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh. “We played winning football, overcame so much … we messed up that play at the end.
“(I) told them to have resolve, put steel in their spines, and we’ll move forward.”
For much of the game, little went right for the 12th-ranked Wolverines (2-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall). Few of the eight reviews were overturned in their favor, and they lost one of their captains, senior linebacker Joe Bolden, to ejection following a controversial targeting call.
But still, behind strong performances on special teams and defense, Michigan never trailed and was about to hold off the Spartans for a 23-21 win.
That is, until the last play.
In a play that will be remembered in the state of Michigan for generations, O’Neill’s frantic fumble was recovered by safety Jalen Watts-Jackson with 10 seconds left. A swarm of Spartans protected the redshirt freshman as he scrambled 38 yards into the end zone and Michigan State lore.
Though the game grew more hectic by the quarter, it began as a prototypical Big Ten slugfest. Michigan mustered just three plays in the first quarter and 92 yards in the first half, but held a 10-7 lead at the break.
The first review of the game came on senior fullback Sione Houma’s two-yard touchdown run to make it 7-0 early in the second quarter. The play stood, but the Wolverines weren’t as lucky on the second review just minutes later, when Bolden was ejected from the game for a controversial targeting call that Harbaugh later called “hard to fathom.”
Michigan State scored its first touchdown just two plays later.
The third quarter saw a more open playbook for the Wolverines — the highlight of which came when redshirt freshman safety Jabrill Peppers took his first offensive carry 28 yards to Michigan State’s 3-yard line.
Junior running back De’Veon Smith appeared to find the end zone on the next two plays, but both were called back upon review. Houma found the end zone again on the next play, though that play, too, was reviewed. That time, the call was not overturned.
The Spartans outgained the Wolverines, 386-230, and looked stronger than any team had in the passing game against Michigan.
Instead, strong special teams kept Michigan on top. Former walk-on and senior kicker Kenny Allen tallied a career-high three field goals, Peppers compiled 116 return yards and O’Neill averaged nearly 45 yards on seven punts.
“The guys brought big play to a big game,” Harbaugh said. “There were calls that were made, calls that weren’t made, but the guys kept fighting.”
But it was O’Neill’s eighth punt — the one that never was — that will go down in infamy.
Eventually, after the Spartans had finished the celebration and the officials ruled the game over, the fans that were frozen in the moment got up. As they filed out of Michigan Stadium, the stunned silence lingered in the cool October air. Any Spartan fans daring enough to break the silence were treated to screams to be quiet.
They weren’t the typical shouts heard at stadiums. They were broken hearts screaming out of desperation, still in denial of the game’s final play. What began as a typically loud, rambunctious intra-state rivalry between two top-15 teams had become a war zone.
What was supposed to be Michigan State’s demise had become a miraculous moment. What was meant to be a Michigan win had become a loss.
To the stunned fans, it wasn’t fair. But it didn’t matter.
“We played winning football and didn’t get the result,” Harbaugh said. “Welcome to football.”