Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Matt Charboneau look ahead to Saturday's showdown between the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Detroit News
East Lansing — “Trouble with the snap.”
Those four words torment Michigan fans but highlight one of the most magical moments in Michigan State football history.
It was two years ago when ABC play-by-play announcer Sean McDonough described the final play of the 2015 edition of the rivalry. Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball after Michigan punter Blake O’Neill mishandled the snap then lost the ball as he tried in vain to kick the ball away.
Watts-Jackson raced down the sideline, led by a convoy of Spartans, crossing the goal line into the end zone as time expired, giving Michigan State a 27-23 victory. The packed Big House sat stunned, Jim Harbaugh looked toward the end zone in dismay and Michigan State players swarmed the field.
It was, needless to say, an unforgettable moment.
But as the teams get set to face each other Saturday night in the first meeting at Michigan Stadium since the thrilling finish, the Spartans insist it’s a moment that lives right where it is — in the past.
“Not too much anymore,” senior center Brian Allen said when asked how often the play is talked about. “It was a special night for us and is something we’ll remember forever, but the goal going back there this week is just to get a win. It’s special when you win there.”
Michigan State knows plenty about that under coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans are 7-3 against the Wolverines in Dantonio’s tenure, including a 3-1 mark at Michigan Stadium.
However, few games have matched the 2015 contest.
The Spartans were unbeaten and ranked No. 7 in the nation while the Wolverines were No. 11. The hype surrounding Harbaugh, in his first season at Michigan, was in full force and it looked like he would pull out a win in his first head-to-head matchup with Dantonio.
But it all changed in an instant. And just as quickly, it created another hero in the rivalry.
A few days after the game, as Watts-Jackson was recovering from surgery on the hip he broke when tackled in the end zone, Dantonio called him a legend. He joined the list of Spartans who have had big games against the Wolverines from Bobby Morse to Plaxico Burress to a defense that held Michigan to -48 yards rushing.
“Yeah, I think that games like this does do that for certain individuals when they are able to make a play in the game,” Dantonio said. “It goes on the other side of things, probably, too. But remember that's what these games give you. They give you a little bit of a legacy. That's, again, why rivalry games I think are so good for college football.”
That meeting two years ago was the first time tight end Matt Sokol got to play in the series. He was primarily on special teams then, and it’s something the Rochester native hasn’t forgotten.
“That was a crazy experience,” Sokol said. “That entire atmosphere and experience was something I'll never forget. Obviously, the outcome of the game was a dream come true.”
But for the bulk of the Michigan State players that take the field on Saturday night, it will be the first time as the visiting team in this series. Only 17 players on the current roster played in the 2015 game, and even fewer played a significant role.
Safety Khari Willis made his first start that day as a true freshman, as did fellow safety Grayson Miller, who has missed the last two games with an injury.
Willis has fond memories of that game, but his focus is on what happens Saturday night. That means adjusting to the fact John O’Korn will be making his first start this season at quarterback for the Wolverines and how that will affect the Michigan State defense.
However, he also believes the defense is up for the challenge.
“They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do,” Willis said. “It’s not really about them, it’s more about us coming out to execute and playing our strength and executing on every single facet of the game.”
They were up to the challenge two years ago, limiting Michigan to 230 total yards and just 10 first downs. And on the final play, Willis was out there as part of the Rangers team. He wasn’t far from Watts-Jackson when he grabbed the ball out of the air and Willis followed him into the end zone.
Now a veteran, Willis hopes to relive that feeling again, albeit maybe not in such dramatic fashion.
“We did what we were supposed to do,” Willis said. “We put ourselves in a position to win. This year I expect to be no different. Obviously, this year I'm a little older and it means a lot more.”
It means more for every Spartan, but especially for those that were there in 2015, including linebacker Chris Frey. He is pushing the young players hard to show them the lessons he learned from those before him.
To beat Michigan, it takes a little bit more
“It’s just a different mindset,” the senior captain said. “The older guys that have played in this game before, they bring a different mentality to practice on every single day. Practices might be a little bit longer, they might be a little harder, but in the end, it’s going to pay off.”