Jalen Watts-Jackson (20) crosses the goal line to score the winning touchdown after time expired to claim the win and the Paul Bunyan trophy for Michigan State in a 27-23 over Michigan Saturday, October 17, 2015, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. Watts-Jackson recovered a muffed punt for a touchdown.
ANN ARBOR – Don’t bother flipping through the history books – there has never been a crazier finish in the Michigan State-Michigan rivalry than the one that took place Saturday at Michigan Stadium.
U-M punter Blake O’Neill lined up for a punt with 10 seconds left and U-M up 23-21, but he fumbled the snap, gathered the ball briefly, took a hit and watched it pop into the hands of MSU’s Jalen Watt-Jackson – who streaked all the way for the winning 38-yard touchdown as the clock expired.
MSU 27, Michigan 23. Out of nowhere. To the utter shock of a stadium full of 111,740 people, most of them ready to celebrate a gigantic rivalry win under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
“I don’t know what you say about that,” Mark Dantonio said after earning his 100th win as a head coach and his seventh in nine tries against U-M. “You go from 10 seconds (left) and a guy punting the ball and you’re thinking, ‘This is done,’ and all the sudden, life gets flipped upside down.”
Somehow, MSU has now won seven of eight games in this rivalry for the first time in history. And the No. 7 Spartans (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) remain alive for their Big Ten title and College Football Playoff pursuits. Their immediate reaction was chaotic.
MSU players streamed onto the field and piled onto Watts-Jackson in the north end zone, then grabbed the Paul Bunyan Trophy and took it to the south end zone and a throng of fans in green there. There was hugging and screaming and more.
“Everybody was crying,” said MSU freshman safety Grayson Miller, who got the first start of his career next to freshman safety Khari Willis, also getting his first career start.
And there was another familiar sight this season – an MSU player being carted off the field. Watts-Jackson either broke or dislocated a hip during the play or celebration, Dantonio said, and was taken immediately to the hospital. Teammates found him for words of support as he departed and they continued wandering around in a delirious daze.
“I’ve never felt anything like that,” said MSU senior quarterback Connor Cook, who improved to 30-3 as a starter and finishes 3-0 as a starter against U-M. “I honestly felt like I was in a dream. It’s just completely crazy.”
Because it was, essentially, over. Cook had come up empty in his attempt to bring the Spartans back on a big day otherwise (328 yards, one touchdown) vs. U-M’s ferocious defense.
His deep pass under pressure to an open Macgarrett Kings Jr. on fourth-and-19 hung up and was broken up by Michigan’s Dymonte Thomas, seemingly delivering victory for No. 12 U-M (5-2, 2-1). Michigan took over with 1:47 left at its 45, knowing it could almost run the clock out because MSU was down to one timeout.
An MSU defense that played its best game of the season and held the Wolverines to 230 total yards got a stop on three downs. Then the Spartans sent out a punt block team they call “Rangers,” with 10 players rushing, no one deep and one man outside running with Michigan’s gunner.
The gasp was audible in the press box, let alone the stadium, as O’Neill dropped the ball and the final play unfolded.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Dantonio said.
He knew afterward he was going to have the entire team to his house to play some pool, with Paul Bunyan on the table, after what observers called his best victory dance performance yet.
“He was doing some moves I’d never seen, ever,” Cook said.