MSU’s stunning finish: ‘It felt like a dream’

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Michigan State's Brandon Sowards begins the celebration after teammate Jalen Watts-Jackson ran a fumbled punt back for a touchdown to win the game.

Ann Arbor — Mark Dantonio said his jaw dropped. Connor Cook felt like he was living a dream. Riley Bullough wasn’t sure what happened. Demetrious Cox jumped on Darien Harris, who was streaking onto the field.

Those were just some of the reactions as No. 7 Michigan State pulled off one of the more stunning victories in recent memory when it beat No. 12 Michigan, 27-23, for the seventh time in the last eight meetings against its top rival.

When redshirt freshman safety Jalen Watts-Jackson picked up a fumbled punt and raced 38 yards for the winning touchdown with no time on the clock, bedlam ensued on the field at Michigan Stadium.

Players ran, not really sure where to go. Some looked in shock, tears welling up for many.

“I didn’t know what was happening,” Dantonio said. “I was like … I was with all of you, some green, some blue. Everybody probably with their mouths dropped open. As we scooped it up, I thought we could get it down and have one second to kick it, but when I saw the zeros up there I knew we had to score.

“Incredible ending to a great football game. That is why football is loved so much in America, things like this happen. Every now and then they happen.”

It was enough to have Michigan State players in tears with Michigan’s players and stunned fans wondering what had just happened.

Michigan State offensive lineman Brian Allen said the first thing he saw was linebacker Byron Bullough crying near the 50-yard line.

“This game just means so much to his family,” Allen said.

Riley Bullough had just looked away when the play began, only to look up and wonder what he was watching.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I truly didn’t know what happened. I looked back and we’re going the other way. I’m like, ‘What the heck?’ Then we scored, the next thought was, ‘Did he get in?’ Then it was insane. One of the best feelings, literally, ever.”

Just before the final play, Cook was huddled with his offense, trying to come up with a miracle play of their own.

“Obviously, we were hoping to get the ball back and have one play at the end,” Cook said. “I saw he dropped the ball then all of a sudden he got hit. I was hoping we would get tackled soon so we could kick a field goal. He kept running and running and running and I thought, ‘We might as well score the touchdown.’ Then it happened and everyone rushed the field.

“Honestly, it felt like a dream. I was running over to our student section, our parent section and celebrating with my family. Honestly, I’ve never felt anything like that.”

It was fitting that Michigan State won the game on special teams.

The Spartans have struggled mightily all season in that aspect and Saturday was no different. They allowed 129 in return yards to Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, and they turned to backup quarterback Tyler O’Connor for every punt but one. Michigan State punted five times for an average of 37.2 yards while the idea of kicking a field goal seemed like it was never an option.

With Michigan State facing a fourth down at the Michigan 28 in first quarter, the Spartans went for it instead of attempting a field goal, which is not a difficult decision considering kicker Michael Geiger is 5-for-9 this year.

“If we come in here with a loss, I’d have to say we gotta play better on special teams,” Dantonio said. “Because I thought Peppers was outstanding. He made plays, changed field position in the game. We need to continue to play better on special teams because we didn’t.

“We said we had to come up with plus-one big plays on special teams. We just waited till there was no time on the clock to get it, but we got the right one. We got the one that eventually won it for us.”

Fixing the special teams will certainly be an ongoing issue for the Michigan State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) as it moves forward with its goals intact.

On this night, however, the Spartans were planning to bask in the amazing victory.

“I’m gonna play a little pool when we get home,” Dantonio said. “I’ll have Paul Bunyan right in the middle of the table. We’ll invite the team and the coaches over and then decompress.”