EAST LANSING When Michigan State coach Bobby Williams walked up to the podium for his press conference following Saturday”s last-second, 26-24 victory over No. 6 Michigan, he looked at the microphone, smiled and asked, “Is this thing on?”
The normally-reserved Williams could afford to crack jokes, following what might have been the greatest game in the storied Michigan-Michigan State rivalry. When tailback T.J. Duckett caught Jeff Smoker”s heave into the endzone on the final play to give the Spartans (3-2 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) the victory, Spartan Stadium exploded and Michigan State celebrated an improbable win.
“The whole team ran on the field. I thought about running out there and jumping on the pile, but I said, “No, no, I better not”,” a visibly thrilled Williams said. “That was a huge win for this program.”
Michigan (4-1, 6-2) entered the game having lost on three of its last four trips to East Lansing. The last thing the Wolverines needed was to fall behind early, which is exactly what happened.
After being stopped at Michigan”s 31-yard line on its first possession, Michigan State lined up in punt formation. But, the Spartans had no intention of kicking the ball instead, punter Craig Jarrett lofted a pass to a streaking Charles Rogers, who drew a pass-interference penalty against freshman cornerback Marlin Jackson.
The penalty gave the Spartans a first-down at the 16-yard line, and Michigan State wasted little time in taking advantage. On third down, Smoker fired a pass down the left sideline to Rogers, who burned Jackson for a 17-yard touchdown to give the Spartans a 7-0 lead just 5:27 into the game.
“I just tried to make a play, tried to put some points on the board,” said Rogers, who finished with 86 yards and a touchdown on six receptions. “Smoke went to me, and it was the right time.”
The Wolverines responded on their next possession when Hayden Epstein kicked a school-record 57-yard field goal to cut the deficit to four. Michigan finally took its first lead of the game in the second quarter.
Following a missed Michigan State field goal, the Wolverines got the ball at their own 33-yard line and drove 67 yards in eight plays. Michigan quarterback John Navarre connected with Marquise Walker for a 14-yard touchdown to give the Wolverines a 10-7 lead.
But, the Spartans wasted no time in responding. Michigan State went 63 yards in 10 plays on its next possession, with Duckett accounting for 29 yards on four carries. Against the nation”s top-ranked rushing defense, Duckett rumbled for 211 yards on 27 carries, and he put Michigan State back in front with a two-yard touchdown run.
“Our coaches executed the game plan well, and our offensive line blocked outstanding, the best they”ve blocked in a long, long time,” Duckett said when asked about his success. “The running lanes were there.”
A 32-yard scoring pass from Navarre to Walker allowed Michigan to take a 17-14 advantage into halftime. Michigan State”s Dave Raynor kicked a pair of field goals one in the third quarter, one in the fourth to give the Spartans 20-17 lead. That”s when the real fun started.
With its offense sputtering, Michigan needed a turnover to gain some momentum. As if on cue, the Wolverines got a huge break when Smoker fumbled a snap at his own 38-yard line with six minutes to play. Defensive tackle Grant Bowman recovered the fumble, and Michigan went to work.
A 21-yard reverse by Calvin Bell put the Wolverines at Michigan State”s 17-yard line. Then, on third-and-13, Navarre hit backup quarterback Jermaine Gonzales who had entered the game as a fifth wide receiver with a 20-yard touchdown pass to give Michigan a 24-20 lead with 4:44 to play.
The score silenced the crowd at Spartan Stadium, but the Spartans themselves remained unfazed.
“We had a good week of practice, good preparation,” Rogers said. “We were really confident.”
With just over two minutes to play, the Wolverines were forced to punt from deep in their own territory. Epstein promptly released his worst punt of the game, a 28-yarder that gave the Spartans the ball at Michigan”s 44-yard line with 2:09 to play.
But, three plays later, the Spartans were facing fourth-and-16 from midfield, thanks to two of Michigan”s school-record 12 sacks. Smoker threw incomplete, but Michigan State caught the first of three enormous breaks when the officials assessed Michigan cornerback Jeremy LeSueur a personal foul for grabbing Rogers” face mask.
Given new life, the Spartans advanced inside the red zone, thanks in part to a five-yard penalty the Wolverines incurred for having too many men on the field. Facing yet another fourth down, Smoker hit Duckett over the middle for eight yards, down to the four-yard line.
What followed will be argued amongst fans of Michigan and Michigan State for years. On second-and-goal with 17 seconds left, Smoker rolled out to his right and attempted to run for the touchdown.
But he was stopped at the two-yard line, and Michigan State was out of timeouts. The Spartans frantically ran to the line of scrimmage in an attempt to spike the ball and stop the clock. The clock ticked down to one second and appeared to hold there, which allowed Smoker to spike the ball and gave Michigan State the chance to run one more play.
“I don”t run the clock there was one second left on the clock,” Williams said.
On the final play, Smoker again rolled to his right. With the Michigan defensive line bearing down on him, he lofted a pass that flew just over LeSueur”s outstretched hand and into the hands of Duckett, who was promptly mobbed by the entire Michigan State team.
“I thought (LeSueur) had it,” Duckett said. “It looked like it was coming right into his hands. But the ball just kept going, and it fell right into my hands.”