You weren’t supposed to be standing in Michigan Stadium, your mouth open and your eyes wide. You weren’t supposed to be paralyzed at your seat, unable to move a muscle for 15 minutes.
Michigan State wasn’t supposed to be down there, in the end zone, dog-piling and running around with the Paul Bunyan Trophy. It was supposed to be yours. It was supposed to be Michigan’s.
It was inexplicable, unfathomable. It all was. Michigan gave every last ounce of effort, only for a fluke play, one that you’ll never witness again in any other game, to ruin it all.
It wasn’t supposed to end that way.
* * *
Not for Joe Bolden, Michigan’s senior linebacker and team captain. His time in the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry wasn’t supposed to end the way it did Saturday. He was supposed to make a game-winning tackle in the backfield, or maybe break up a pass to end the game. That was supposed to be his final imprint on the rivalry.
But the lasting image of Bolden against Michigan State took place in the north end zone, and it wasn’t with the Paul Bunyan Trophy in his arms.
He had been thrown on top of Michigan State’s Connor Cook as the quarterback slid. His helmet collided with Cook’s and he was ejected for targeting in a play Harbaugh said was “hard to fathom.” Bolden had to leave the field for the rest of the game.
So he did what a captain does. His eyes red and his heart full, he ran around the end zone, all the way to the tunnel. He pumped his arms the whole way, jumping and hollering for the crowd to get riled up and behind his team. It worked. The crowd screamed, and the captain received an appropriate sendoff.
Still, it wasn’t what he deserved. Even before he was a captain, Bolden served as a de facto team spokesman during last year’s struggles. Greg Mattison, then Michigan’s defensive coordinator, once said he wished he had 11 Joe Boldens in his meeting room. He’s known as a leader in the locker room, setting an example the rest of the players look up to.
The passion Michigan’s coaching staff loves put Bolden in the middle of controversy last year before the rivalry game. He drove a stake into the turf of Spartan Stadium before the 35-11 loss, in a move meant to motivate his team. Instead, it motivated the Spartans, and embarrassed Michigan. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio used it as yet another example of disrespect. Brady Hoke issued an apology.
Saturday was supposed to change things. It was a chance to put a stake in Michigan State’s Big Ten championship hopes. It was a chance to move on from the years of being bullied and beaten.
Bolden recorded two tackles before his ejection, and many more were left on the table.
He couldn’t do anything else other than give his very last ounce of energy to firing up the crowd.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
* * *
Not for Blake O’Neill. He took the low snap and bobbled it with 10 seconds remaining. You already know what happened next.
What you might not remember is his story. O’Neill is in the middle of his second year in the United States and his second playing college football. He came to Ann Arbor during the summer, for the chance to play big-time college football.
His family lives on the other side of the world in Australia, where they watch his games in the middle of the night. O’Neill earned his undergraduate degree in his home country and wanted to see the world and further his education, so he began attending ProKick Australia, a kicking academy, to learn how to play American football.
He starred in his one year at Weber State, ranking sixth in the Football Championship Subdivision in yards per punt. Then he came to Michigan, where he was at first in awe of the crowds and the passion for football.
Never more did he feel that passion than in the hours before his final mistake. O’Neill pumped his fist and gestured after an 80-yard punt just a few minutes into the game. The crowd was overjoyed, as it seldom is because of a punter. O’Neill’s teammates mobbed him on the sideline. Harbaugh gave him a pat on the head.
O’Neill was shaping up to be a hero Saturday, a guy who flipped the field position battle almost every time he touched the ball. Three of his seven punts were downed inside Michigan State’s 20-yard line. The Wolverines might never have held the lead if it weren’t for O’Neill.
But the eighth punt never happened. That punt, the game-sealing one, was supposed to roll down the Spartans’ end of the field, where no return man waited. It was supposed to roll until the clock hit zero and “The Victors” played.
What was supposed to happen did not. The snap was low and bobbled. O’Neill tried and tried, but he could not gain control and the ball flew into the air. It ended up in Michigan’s end zone, in the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson, where nobody ever thought it could.
And all you could do was sit there and wonder: How did that happen?
If December 30, the day Michigan announced the hiring of Jim Harbaugh, was supposed to be the day marking the Wolverines’ return to college football’s elite, Saturday was going to be the coronation. It was going to be the day when Michigan defeated its top-10 instate rival for just the second time in eight years, when you could finally turn to your cousin or your dad or your little brother who went to Michigan State and tell them that your school was finally back, for real this time.
But then came the play you don’t want to relive, the one you’ll never forget. So you sat there, your head in your hands, wondering how it all came to be.
Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MaxACohen.