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Describing the indescribable: Voices behind Big House mayhem

Matt Charboneau, and Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Jim Harbaugh let the clock wind down to 10 seconds before calling a timeout on fourth down with Michigan leading Michigan State, 23-21.

Michigan punter Blake O'Neill loses the ball under pressure from Michigan State’s Grayson Miller, Matt Morrissey and Andrew Dowell.

Sean McDonough, calling the game for ESPN, said the Wolverines needed to be cautious.

“Make sure the (punt) snap is on the target,” McDonough said.

Analyst Chris Spielman added his assessment.

“Tell your punter to one-step it, get it out. Don’t take your normal steps. One-step it, get it out,” he said.

And then ...

“Whoa! He has trouble with the snap!” McDonough yelled, his voice cracking as he described the play.

Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap, and Michigan State backup defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson returned it for a touchdown and a 27-23 victory.

As Watts-Jackson plunged into the end zone, Michigan’s Jake Butt lunged toward him in a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable.

“Whoa!” Michigan State radio analyst Jason Strayhorn breathlessly yelled. “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?!”

Jim Brandstatter, on the Michigan radio play-by-play, was equally as stunned.

“He fumbled the ball! No time left … you’ve got to be kidding me. That, you could not write. … I don’t know what to say.”

It’s a moment that will forever live in in the minds of those who were there, those who watched, and those who listened.

And for those whose job it was to tell the story.

Each had a unique perspective about the play.

Sean McDonough

Sean McDonough

McDonough was named lead play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” this season. He covered Major League Baseball and NCAA basketball for CBS before moving to ABC/ESPN in 2000 where he has covered college football, basketball and hockey and the NHL.

“As much as Michigan looked like it was going to win, I’m proud we never said it’s a win. We referenced, ‘If it stays this way’ and put in perspective what a win would mean under Harbaugh. Spielman talked about the scenarios before the punt.

“It was just shocking. People ask me all the time about the call and my voice breaking and what do you do at that point? You don’t think about it. You don’t think about, ‘This is a good play so I better scream like a 12-year-old.’ Good play-by-play people respond instinctively. You go with it mentally, physically, emotionally. First of all, you don’t have time to think, secondly, you don’t have time to anticipate. You have 30 seconds to think about every wacky thing that might happen, and you certainly don’t think that wouldn’t happen.

“I’m a big believer in there’s nothing you can say that’s better than the pictures and the sound. All you can do is distract from or ruin what should be a great moment if you’re talking over something that does not need a caption. We didn’t talk for close to a minute.

“It’s one of the things I love the most about what we do. If you’re lucky enough, you end up at a place and a moment like that, and you get one chance like that. It’s there and there forever. It’s like playing or coaching or officiating — it’s there. Big plays like that, either you get it right or you don’t.

“I remember thinking after the game, ‘What happened to my voice?’ The good news is, I think I have hit puberty since then. I’m now shaving which is very exciting. It was bizarroland. It was such an unexpected shocking dramatic play, I hope my high-pitched squealing added to it. At the beginning I was, I don’t want to say embarrassed by it, but I’ve had so much great response to that.

“The magnitude of the moment, it would be hard-pressed to say I had seen an ending like that. You walk out of there and you’re in disbelief like everyone else and you’re hoping you did it justice. You’re around long enough you hope to be in those types of situations a few times. I feel very fortunate to have been there. For the Michigan people, I’m sure they didn’t think that was the right time. That’s the benefit of not being affiliated with either team. I did not care who won or lost. I didn’t have the rooting-interest part of me at work. If you did, it would be hard to focus. I’d be hard-pressed to remember anything else from that game, except the ending. It’s one of those plays, it will be remembered forever.”

George Blaha

George Blaha

Blaha has been calling Michigan State football for nearly four decades and has been on hand for some of the most memorable games in school history. The 2014 inductee into the Michigan Broadcasting Hall of Fame is also in his 40th season as the play-by-play voice for the Pistons.

“I’ve seen my share of blocked punts for starters and you can’t do these games for as long as I have and not see some crazy things happen. And they’ve happened to the Spartans and they’ve happened to the other guys. So I knew I had a ringside seat. It happened right underneath us and I’m thinking, ‘I wonder if they can block this thing?’ And then I looked and see there is nobody back, they’re coming after ’em, which they should. And Michigan had gunners and I thought, ‘Well you know, it looks to me like it’s the more numbers in Spartan jerseys than there are in Wolverine jerseys. Who knows?’

“I mean, I thought to myself before the snap it was gonna have to be perfect that’s why I went crazy when I saw it was bad. It wasn’t a good snap. It wasn’t a horrible snap but it was not a good snap and they needed, under those circumstances, just about a perfect snap and they didn’t get it. And Blake O’Neill, who in my opinion was the reason Michigan was ahead in the game, he kept pinning the Spartans back all day. (Michigan State) had outgained Michigan and out-first downed them 2 to 1. The poor kid suddenly was flooded with Spartans in his face and, including, and I thought it was appropriate as I look back on it, I didn’t know at the time who was in his face, but it was Grayson Miller and Matt Morrissey, two legacy kids.

“I was not unprepared for a blocked punt. I thought that was about the only thing that could happen here to turn this the other way and it’s happened before, let’s see what happens now. It was bedlam after that. Absolute bedlam. I thought it was Jalen Watts-Jackson but I had to look down on my sheet just to be sure because you want whoever did it to get proper credit and it was Jalen and good for him. He paid for it dearly and had to recoup from his hip injury but he’s a Spartan hero for the rest of his life.”

Jim Brandstatter

Jim Brandstatter

Brandstatter, who played offensive line at Michigan between 1969-71, handles radio play-by-play for the school and is an analyst on Lions radio broadcasts. He also hosts the “Inside Michigan Football” television show and the “Inside Michigan Football” radio show with coach Jim Harbaugh.

“It happened so fast, you just react. My position is, your training takes over. All I remember thinking ahead of time, ‘They’re going to block it. Make sure you get the kick off.’ They had nobody deep. He gets this away, it’s over. I didn’t say that because (Michigan State) brought everybody up. I went ‘Well they better max protect and get this off.’

“Like every play-by-play announcer, everything was up for grabs and at that point, that’s when your training takes over. I called the play, I was accurate, but I didn’t get the name of Jalen Watts-Jackson who recovered it and scored. I said, ’10, five, touchdown Michigan State. And they’ve won the football game.’ Twenty seconds later I got his name.

“And then I paused. You let the crowd tell the story. After a few seconds, I said, you can’t write this stuff. Dan didn’t say anything for another 10 seconds. He finally said, ‘I’m just taking some time to process what I just saw.’ Both of us looked at each other. You’ve got to play 60 minutes and this was a perfect example. Both of us sat there and looked at each other.

“I’ve got to finish the game. I’ve been through the Hail Mary’s, but 99 out of 100 times this doesn’t happen. When we beat Indiana in ’79, that wasn’t going to happen, but that happened on the good side for us. All the stars were in the right alignment and the moon was in the right position and Aquarius was inside Leo and it happened. The only thing I would say now, that play will not have any bearing on anything that happens this year. Michigan has revenge of eight years on their minds. That one play doesn’t make it different.”

Chris Spielman

Chris Spielman

Spielman, the former Pro Bowl selection who played 11 seasons in the NFL including the Lions, has become a fixture in football broadcasting. He began as an NFL studio analyst with Fox Sports Net in 1999, then spent 14 years as a college football analystwith ESPN before moving this year to join Fox’s NFL coverage.

“I just remember the setup. The one thing I thought, I remember making a comment that he should one step it, catch it and one step and get rid of it. Being trained as a player for so many years, you always expect the unexpected.

“The guy who was the MVP of the broadcast was the spotter for the kid who recovered the ball. He did a great job, and Sean was on top of it with genuine emotion that makes the ending of that game so special. Sean was really good, and I followed his lead.

“You don’t want to talk over something like that. The pictures can speak way louder than what we had to say. I was really proud of that whole crew for how we handled that play. It was producer Bo Garrett and Mike Schwab, the director. It was a once-in-a-lifetime ending, and it was one of those moments you never want to get flat-footed, and we didn’t.”

Michigan punter Blake O'Neill bobbles a low snap before fumbling it on the last play of the game.

Jason Strayhorn

Jason Strayhorn

Strayhorn was an offensive lineman at Michigan State and started 24 consecutive games at center between 1997-98, earning first-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior. He is in his 11th season with the Spartans Sports Network, the first seven as a sideline reporter.

“So 10 seconds left and we had no one deep at all. And I’m thinking, ‘OK, so they’re gonna kick the ball.’ And I’m thinking about Hail Mary, I’m thinking about Connor Cook getting back in the game, how much time can we get, can we get close enough within striking distance for a Hail Mary? That’s all I was thinking about. I wasn’t thinking about a blocked punt whatsoever. But then I looked and I noticed they had gunners, which was odd. I’m like, ‘Why do they have gunners, there’s nobody deep?’

And then when he bobbled it, George hit the, ‘Bad snap!’ And I’m like, ‘Whoa!’ The ball’s in the air and it’s one of those moments where you’re just like, ‘Am I really seeing this?’ And Jalen Watts-Jackson gets the ball and all I’m thinking is, ‘Oh God, he’s gonna run out of bounds or he’s gonna get tackled. He’s gonna fumble the ball. What’s gonna happen? He’s not gonna make it to the goal line.’ And then just watching him navigate through all that traffic and Butt coming and tackles him, but he crossed the goal line clearly. That was why my reaction was so ridiculous.

“Yeah, it was raw emotion. The guy who’s screaming ‘Oh my God!’ that is not me. That’s (statistician) Larry Sernick. People think that’s me going off mike, they think that was me going ‘Whoa … Oh my God,’ like me doing both. I’m like, ‘No, no, no. I wasn’t going that crazy.’ But I was nuts. I was out of my mind. There’s no doubt about it.”

Doug Karsch

Doug Karsch

Karsch is the longtime sideline reporter for Michigan radio broadcasts. He also is co-host of “Karsch & Anderson” on 97.1 The Ticket

“Every game, regardless of what’s going on, if it looks like they’re going to win, I set up a sideline interview before the game ends. (Michigan associate athletic director Dave) Ablauf was behind the bench and we were discussing who we were going to talk to if Michigan won. Todd McShay, the television sideline reporter, Ablauf and I were sorting out who we would talk to, and by the time we got that figured out, Michigan was lining up to punt.

“I had to decide where to go. I went to the end to where they were punting, about the 25-yard line on the Michigan sideline. Just as I got down there, they snapped the ball, and I absolutely had no view of it. I saw there was no punt, and there was commotion on the sideline. I looked at the scoreboard to see Jalen Watts-Jackson carrying the ball into the end zone.

“Now, we’re not doing an interview. Then, my job is to go into the locker room. I usually get three interviews. It’s a given that if they lose a game, it will take a while. I waited probably an hour, and if I recall correctly I got one player, maybe two, but not three. I’ve been in some depressed locker rooms. I’ve been in the locker room after Appalachian State — that was anger, this was shock.”

Keith Nichol

Keith Nichol

Nichol was a quarterback and wide receiver at Michigan State, his biggest moment coming in 2011 when he caught a touchdown pass on the final play to beat Wisconsin. Now a financial representative in Troy, Nichol is in his second season as the sideline reporter for the Spartan Sports Network.

I was on the sideline at the 40-yard line because I need to get one of the coaches for the postgame interview. So I was trying to get behind one of them and I’m thinking about what I’m gonna say and the whole deal. When I was looking out on the field I was thinking about everything that would have to happen in the next 10 seconds. It could be a block that we had to jump on right away or a block that we’re scooping and scoring. If they get the punt off, I said the game is done because by the time the ball hits the ground and it rolls and that’s 10 seconds gone right there, so when we blocked the snap I’m immediately looking for flags, looking up at the scoreboard to see if time’s ticking down. It was getting really close at the end, I remember thinking but once he crossed the line I tried to see if there were any flags and then I threw my headset up like I was one of the coaches and started rushing the team like I was part of the team and throwing stuff around. Then I’m getting yelled at by the press box to get interviews and stuff with everybody and I’m like, ‘Nobody wants to talk to us right now.’ But it was just the most euphoric feeling, like I had against Wisconsin. It was an incredible feeling.

“I ran out to about the 20-yard line before I said I’m a grown man I’m not part of the team and I had to pull myself together. I didn’t dive on the pile. Could you imagine seeing that?”

Dan Dierdorf

Dan Dierdorf, a member of the Pro and College Football Hall of Fames, was honored Friday night by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Dierdorf was an All-American offensive lineman at Michigan in 1970. He has been inducted into the college and pro football Halls of Fame. After he retired, he was a television broadcaster and worked 12 seasons as an analyst for ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and 15 years as part of the NFL on CBS. He has beencolor analyst for Michigan football since 2014.

“First and foremost, I’m a professional announcer. It’s what I do, done all my life since I retired. When a play like that happens, it is the play-by-play man’s responsibility to deliver the goods. It’s his call. It’s his job to call it and it’s my job to stay out of the way. Factor in I wouldn’t have said anything right away anyway, but factor in the fact I was stunned.

“When I did network television for 30 years, I know a lot of viewers find this hard to believe, but I didn’t care who won or who lost. I wanted it to be 35-35 in the fourth quarter, I wanted a competitive game with viewers watching and not turning to “The Price is Right”.

“For the first time in my life, I do care. Sometimes I care too much, because I’ve got deep feelings for my university. When that play happened, A. I was stunned and B. my heart was just broken for the Michigan players and everyone in the stadium. I didn’t say anything for a while. I said something like, ‘I can’t believe what I just saw.’ There’s no analysis necessary there. We got into it later. I will admit, my TV instincts kicked in there. In TV you always lay out on a moment like that. The director is cutting to all the shots. I may have laid out for five seconds too long but old habits are hard to break.

“In hindsight, 10 things had to happen for Michigan State to score on that play, and it’s so rare when all 10 of them happen. Of all players for that ball to go to, it goes to the guy who catches it perfectly in full stride heading to the end zone. It really was one of those plays that the cosmos aligned. You just don’t see it where everything that Michigan State needed for that to happen, happened. It’s a once-in-a-generation play. they don’t come along like that very often. The fact it was against your arch rival, it was the old saying, we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

“I felt so bad for Blake O’Neill, who when that was over, I was so proud how he handled that. He’s obviously a hell of a kid. It was textbook the way he handled that. He took it like it like a man. I admired that.

“The big picture, plays like that are really good for college football. I’m sorry it happened, I’m devastated it happened but if you take two steps back and look at the big picture, it’s great for the game when something that happens. Plays like that make people love college football. We took one for the team. I just wish it would not have happened on my watch.”

Mike Schwab

Schwab was ESPN's director for the network's broadcast of the game

“At that point, you’re reacting. Funny thing that happened, we’re obviously anticipating a Michigan win. Our hand-held (camera) guy on the sideline, he has lined up a great shot of Coach Harbaugh, but security moved in because they expected the fans to storm of the field and didn’t want them to trip on the chord. We’re changing the assignments in the moment which made it chaotic.

“So now they’re coming out, about to snap the ball, camera 6 is out, we’re changing assignments. You have to get Harbaugh. Now.  When the touchdown happened, I was kind of like, I’m not sure what we have here, because your instincts take over. We got the overhead shot of Jalen Watts-Jackson in the end zone with a frame camera there and it was obvious this kid is hurting and can’t get up.

“I was satisfied (with the broadcast) for two reasons. If that punt had gone off, Michigan wins, I thought we had a really good telecast. I was happy A to Z with how we covered it. I’m a perfectionist. I wish we had shown O’Neill, the punter. We never got to him in the moment. I wish we had the Harbaugh shot I know we could have had. When I separate myself and look at it again, I’m very happy.  Speils, just before the snap, talking about the rugby-style punter, he nailed that. And for Sean in the moment to get Jalen Watts-Jackson’s name, that’s really, really good.

“For a play that ends a game, that’s the top of the list for me.”

Will Tieman

Tieman is the Spartan Sports Network broadcast host

“I stayed on the field as long as we could and I still had to get in (the locker room for postgame interviews). So I’m getting all the stuff, I’m checking everything. And the Paul Bunyan Trophy is a big deal. I think that symbolizes a lot of good stuff. So it’s me and a couple guys and they come get it. It goes. Paul’s gone. It sits right in the middle of the locker room and the loser has to make sure it’s next door when the team shows.

“So I’m in there getting ready for the postgame and they come and get Paul. I said to (producer) Wendy (Hart), ‘By the way, where are we in this game?’ She goes, ‘There’s about 10 seconds left and they’re gonna punt.’ I go, ‘They’re gonna punt?’ ‘Yeah.’ And then from there … when she hits the mute button to talk to me I don’t hear the guys (in the booth), I only hear her. All I hear is screaming and yelling and things like, ‘Oh my God. We got the ball. Oh my God. I think we won.’ And I’m screaming back, ‘What is going on?’ I had no idea.

“Except in the middle of her screaming, Paul came back. It came back. I’m looking and there’s a security person and a manager-type guy, I don’t know who it was, but I look at those two and it was crazy. We start laughing and then we started crying we were so happy. And when you think about it the most exciting postgame locker room we’ve ever done, everybody I talked to saw the play but me. I did not see the play until we were long off the air, because there are no monitors there. Now I’ve heard the replays, I know what happened, but I didn’t see it. I saw it at home.”