ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Mark Dantonio couldn’t see much from his vantage point, only that Jalen Watts-Jackson had the ball and was gliding down the sideline, the final seconds on the clock ticking down and the north end zone at Michigan Stadium looking like football nirvana.
“I didn’t know what was happening. I was with all you, some green, some blue,” said Dantonio, shaking his head in amazement. “Everybody’s mouths just dropped open.”
No, the Stanford band wasn’t on the field at the end of game. Doug Flutie and Kordell Stewart were nowhere to be found in the Big House, and another second wasn’t added to the clock for somebody to pull off a kick-six.
But Watts-Jackson and Michigan State might have given us the most improbable ending of all Saturday night when the sophomore defensive back snared Michigan punter Blake O’Neill’s bobble of a low snap and raced 38 yards for a touchdown on the final play and into college football lore.
It was the only lead Michigan State would have all night, but it’s the one that counted in an improbable 27-23 win that left even those who participated in that final play speechless.
“This is something you tell your grandkids about. I’m at a loss for words,” said Michigan State freshman safety Grayson Miller, who came flying in to hit O’Neill as he scrambled to pick up the bobbled snap.
By that time, O’Neill’s back was to Miller, and O’Neill desperately tried to get off a punt, but the ball popped perfectly into Watts-Jackson’s hands, who got some nifty blocking in those last 10 yards from Jermaine Edmondson and plunged into the end zone.
“I was on the ground and saw Jalen taking off,” said Miller, one of two true freshmen starting in the Michigan State secondary on Saturday. “Before I knew it, he was in the end zone.
“I don’t want to say it was a miracle, but it just shows that anything can happen in this game.”
If the ending wasn’t already surreal enough, Watts-Jackson dislocated his hip during the wild celebration in the end zone and had to be taken to the hospital.
But before the Spartans went onto the field that final time, freshman safety Khari Willis said he and Watts-Jackson looked at each other and simply said, “Believe.”
“We all did. That’s what we all said,” Willis said. “At Michigan State, we play until there are zeros on the clock. It’s a part of who we are.”
That may be, but this one was over. Only 10 seconds remained. The Big House was pure bedlam, and all Michigan had to do was get a punt away. The Wolverines led 23-21 and coach Jim Harbaugh called timeout just as the play clock was about to expire. The Spartans were out of timeouts.
“You could go for it. If you go for it, you leave them with a Hail Mary,” Harbaugh said. “You could protect up and throw a long pass. Still, though, you’d eat up seven seconds and they’d have a Hail Mary opportunity. [We] ran through those scenarios and felt like the best decision was to punt it.
“They didn’t have any returners. It was just a matter of catching it and punting it. We messed it up.”
The Michigan players were still in shock after the game. Three times in the fourth quarter, Michigan’s defense held Michigan State without any points after the Spartans had moved inside the Wolverines’ 40-yard line.
And then that final fateful punt.
“It can’t be true,” said Michigan defensive tackle Willie Henry, doing his best to explain those last few seconds. “You go out there and play your hearts out with your teammates. To lose on something like that is just hard to gather right now.”
Dantonio, some 30 minutes after the game, admitted he was still numb.
“But a good numb, like putting ice on it,” said Dantonio, who didn’t think the Spartans would have been able to block the punt had O’Neill not dropped it.
In fact, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook, who finished with 328 passing yards, was with his receivers during that final play trying to draw up a last-ditch play on offense.
“Lateral and score,” Cook said of what it was going to be.
As it was, the Spartans didn’t need it.
Once Watts-Jackson plucked the ball out of midair and took off, Dantonio was initially thinking he might be able to get out of bounds with a second or two, giving Michigan State a shot at a game-winning field goal. Watts-Jackson, though, had other ideas.
“I don’t know what to say,” Dantonio said. “You go from 10 seconds and the guy punting the ball to thinking, ‘OK, this is done,’ and all of a sudden life gets flipped upside down and we come out on the top end of it.”
The cruel irony for Michigan is that the Wolverines dominated special teams throughout the game. At least, until the very end.
“We said we had to come up with plus-one on special teams,” Dantonio said. “We just waited until there was no time on the clock to get it. We got the right one.”
The Spartans also kept their mojo going in this series. They’ve won seven of the past eight, and the whole “little brother” conversation seems like little more than idle chatter now.
“We’re 7-0. That’s the most important thing in all of this,” said Dantonio, whose Spartans have now won 12 straight Big Ten road games. “Our dreams were kept alive, and we’re able to move forward.”
So what if it took a dream ending?