Photo courtesy of Michigan State athletics
There’s unlikely finishes and then there are moments in sports that get dubbed as “miracles”.
Ask a Michigan or Michigan State fan about what took place on this day five years ago and there’s a decent chance that word will be used. On this day five years ago, a mishandled punt on the game’s final play turned into the winning touchdown for Michigan State as the Spartans stunned the Wolverines, 27-23.
Setting the Stage
Michigan State was 6-0 and ranked No. 7 in the country as it made its way to Ann Arbor to take on its in-state rivals on Oct. 17, 2015. At the time, the Spartans were no strangers to close games. Three of their first six victories had come by seven points or less.
Michigan seemed to be a program that was ascending under first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. After opening the year with a loss to Utah, the Wolverines had won five straight games and pitched three straight shutouts. At 5-1, Michigan was ranked No. 12 in the country and was just seconds from rising even higher.
Up 23-21, only 10 seconds separated Michigan from a win over its in-state rivals. De’Veon Smith had just been stopped on third down as Harbaugh sent out his punt team near midfield.
For Michigan to secure victory, punter Blake O’Neill just needed to get the kick away. After fumbling the snap, he appeared to panick.
Rather than falling on the football, O’Neill tried to pick it up and get the punt away. Before he could, O’Neill was hit and the ball popped into the hands of Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson. With fellow Spartans by his side, Watts-Jackson made his way down the field for the 38-yard winning touchdown as time expired.
A stunned “Big House” could only look on in disbelief. Michigan State had defeated Michigan for a third straight time. The final from Ann Arbor: Spartans 27, Wolverines 23.
Until the game’s final play, Michigan had never trailed in the contest. Behind a Sione Houma touchdown run and a Kenny Allen field goal, Michigan led 10-7 at halftime. L.J. Scott scored the lone touchdown of the first half for the Spartans.
The teams traded touchdowns early in the third quarter. Following another short touchdown run from Houma, Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook connected with Macgarrett Kings for a 30-yard touchdown. Allen added field goals late in the third quarter and early in the fourth to push the Michigan lead back to nine.
The Spartans pulled to within two on Scott’s second touchdown of the day with less than nine minutes to play. With under two minutes to play, it appeared as if Michigan had sealed the victory when it stopped the Spartans on 4th-and-19. Having one timeout left was enough for Michigan State to force Michigan to line up in punt formation one last time.
Cook passed for 328 yards for Michigan State in the win. Aaron Burbridge led the Spartans and all receivers with nine catches for 132 yards. Michigan State finished with 386 yards of offense to 230 for the Wolverines.
Michigan would rebound to win its next four games. The Wolverines lost to Ohio State in the regular season finale before topping Florida in the Citrus Bowl, 41-7. The bowl victory gave Michigan its first 10-win season since 2011.
The victory for Michigan State would prove huge. Michigan State would go on to win the Big Ten for the second time in four years and made its first appearance in the College Football Playoff. It would get shut out by Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, 38-0.
Still, the 2015 season for Michigan State and head coach Mark Dantonio would be a special one. The most memorable moment from that campaign came on this day five years ago.