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 cornerback Brandon Williams.
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 a 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.”