Michigan State of Ecstasy: How 10 Seconds Broke Hearts and Stopped at Least One

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Michigan punter Blake O'Neill tries to get off a punt attempt after fumbling the snap on the last play of the game against Michigan State, October 17. The Wolverines were up 23-21 when O'Neill muffed the punt, the ball was recovered by Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran the ball 38 yards for the game-winning touchdown and a 27-21 win. Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire/AP

Fate’s pendulum swung in time with the leg of Michigan punter Blake O’Neill on Saturday night in Ann Arbor, as the Wolverines suffered a crushing defeat to their in-state rivals, Michigan State, on the game’s final play. It was a reversal of fortune so abrupt, so stunning, that one fan among the 111,740 in attendance suffered cardiac arrest. "We did have one heart attack at the end of the game in the stadium," University of Michigan public information officer Diane Brown confirmed. It is a wonder that the tally of cardiac incidents was that low.

With 10 seconds remaining, the score stood Michigan 23, Michigan State 21. The No. 15 Wolverines (5-1) faced a fourth down and 2 at the 48-yard line of the unbeaten, No. 7 Spartans (6-0). All that remained for Michigan to triumph over its in-state adversaries from East Lansing was for punter Blake O’Neill to punt the pigskin without incident.

“One step,” ESPN color analyst Chris Spielman cautioned O’Neill. “Don’t take your normal steps. One step and get it out.”

One step and get it out and the Michigan band would soon be playing “Hail to the Victors,” the Wolverine fight song, with renewed fervor. The Spartans did not place a man back to field the punt, opting instead to crash the line in hopes of blocking O’Neill’s kick (in fact, Michigan State did not even bother to line up a defender against the Wolverine’s split out left end). While O’Neill’s punt would perhaps not be the game’s final play, it would leave the Spartans at least 80 yards from the end zone, far out of any mortal’s range to attempt a game-winning field goal.

In the Great Lakes State, the season had been building toward this moment. The Spartans, whom former Michigan tailback Mike Hart once described as the Wolverines’ “little brother,” has recently gotten the upper hand in this intrastate rivalry between schools located in a state whose outline resembles an upper hand.

The Spartans had won six of the past seven games in this series. Michigan may be the all-time winningest program in major college football (920 victories), but in the past half-decade Sparty has been the superior program. Michigan State has won at least 11 games in four of the past five seasons. In that same period Michigan has been mediocre, winning more than eight games just once.

Last December Michigan changed coaches for the second time in five years, firing Brady Hoke (31-20 in four seasons, including a 2-6 record vs. the Wolverines’ chief rivals, Michigan State and Ohio State). The Wolverines anointed an alumnus to rescue its foundering program, former All–Big Ten quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

Three decades earlier, Harbaugh had led the Wolverines to the Rose Bowl. After a respectable 15-year NFL career, the 51 year-old, khaki-clad Harbaugh had established himself in less than a decade as a premier coach at both the collegiate (Stanford) and professional (San Francisco 49ers) level. The scouting report on Harbaugh: a winner whose searing intensity produces dramatic and quick results while fraying the nerves of all within his orbit.

In 2006, the year before Harbaugh arrived in Palo Alto, California, Stanford finished 1-11. Four years later the Cardinals finished 12-1, but that would be Harbaugh’s last season with them. He made a small leap in actual mileage, but a quantum leap in terms of prestige, by becoming the head coach of an NFL franchise based in Silicon Valley, the 49ers. In the season before he came on board, San Francisco finished 6-10. Two years later, they came one play shy of winning Super Bowl XLVII.

“I made a decision from the heart which I thought was best for our family,” Harbaugh said at his introductory press conference in Ann Arbor on December 30. He had spent much of his childhood there—his father, Jack, had been an assistant football coach on the staff of the legendary Bo Schembechler—and now, with his alma mater’s proud gridiron program reeling, Harbaugh was returning to his roots. This was not a mercenary career move. “In my life I have dreamed of coaching at the University of Michigan,” Harbaugh said then. “Now I have the honor to live it.”

No one who has followed Harbaugh doubted that he would revive the Wolverines program. The surprise is that he did it so quickly. The Wolverines opened the season unranked, while Michigan State was No. 5 in the Associated Press poll. Michigan kicked off the Harbaugh era on a Thursday evening in Salt Lake City, losing 24-17 to similarly unranked Utah and starting a quarterback, Jake Rudock, who had been cast off as the starter at Iowa.

But then a curious thing happened. Utah kept winning—the Utes are currently ranked third in the nation—and so Michigan’s opening-night loss appeared more respectable. Meanwhile, Harbaugh, the former NFL quarterback, constructed the stingiest defense in the country. Michigan reeled off five straight victories, the most recent three without allowing a point. The last time a Wolverine defense had posted three consecutive shutouts, Harbaugh had been a high school junior. This went beyond Bo Schembechler–level Michigan dominance and directly back to Fielding Yost, who more than a century earlier, in 1903, fielded a Wolverine team that allowed six points in an entire season. “We expect to dominate our opponents,” said Wolverine defensive lineman Willie Henry following a 38-0 thrashing of previously unbeaten, No. 13 Northwestern on October 11. “We don’t want teams to score.”

That confidence is exactly what had been absent in Ann Arbor for nearly a decade. Harbaugh had revived it, and his players, in the fashion of their square-jawed, feisty coach, were not relying on chicanery. Michigan football had returned to being about jamming  your knuckles into the turf, lining up toe-to-toe, and beating the snot out of opponents.

For five straight games, they did. Nearly six.

O’Neill, a native of Melbourne, Australia, who punts the ball rugby-style, lined up at his own 37-yard line. Earlier in the game he had elicited gasps by launching an 80-yard punt, strutting to the sideline afterward with both hands upraised as if to ask, “How about that?”

Now, with 10 seconds on the clock, the snap spiraled back to him, perhaps an inch or two lower than O’Neill might have liked. The football hit him square in both hands, but just as quickly bounced to the turf.

“Whoa!” exclaimed ESPN announcer Sean McDonough. “He has trouble with the snap!”

The ball bounced twice. O’Neill picked it up and, given more time to assess his plight, would have known to simply fall on it. In the madness that enveloped the moment, however, he attempted to punt the ball. Michigan State’s defenders were already crashing down on him. O’Neill swung his leg, but he was spun by a Spartan defender. The ball flew out of his arm and directly into the arms of a player clad in a white uniform and green helmet.

“And the ball is free!” cried McDonough. “It’s picked up by Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson.”

A redshirt freshman, Watts-Jackson raced toward the end zone, directly toward the maize-and-blue clad Michigan student section, following a convoy of blockers. He dived over the plane of the goal line just as Wolverine tight end Jake Butt tackled him.

The clock read 0:00. The scoreboard operator posted “27” next to Visitor on the giant scoreboard. It was the first time Michigan State had led all game.

In the aftermath, as a camera caught Harbaugh staring off into a distance no one can measure, Watts-Jackson was buried by euphoric teammates. Their ecstasy became his agony, as he suffered a dislocated hip beneath the pile. The man who scored the most memorable touchdown in the 117-year history of this rivalry incurred a season-ending injury at the hands of his fellow Spartans.

Watts-Jackson will be unable to place any weight on his left leg for three months. By then the Spartans, who remain undefeated, may find themselves playing in the national championship game, which will take place on January 11 in Glendale, Arizona. The Wolverines, now saddled with two losses, will not be there.

“What do you say about the last play?” said Harbaugh afterward. “It was...you know...unfortunate.”

In a game with as bizarre a finish as any college football fan can remember—or at least since the 2013 Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn—Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio provided an eerie coda. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” Dantonio said, “but as we got off that bus to come to the game, I had our players sit there for 10 seconds and think about what could happen. I actually counted it out. It was ironic that those 10 seconds came back to us at the end of the game.”

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