Ann Arbor — He shares a jersey number with Dad, a position, too, and now an unbelievable memory in a game against Michigan.
Michigan State freshman safety Grayson Miller, in the first start of his career, made a huge hit on the punter on the final play of MSU’s unbelievable 27-23 victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday night.
With Michigan leading by two and punting the ball away on fourth down with 10 seconds left, Michigan State rushed all 11 — including Miller, who, along with fellow safety Matt Morrissey, hit Blake O’Neill as he was bobbling the ball.
And the rest is history — the latest, shocking chapter in a fascinating rivalry.
“Everyone was crying,” Miller said. “Everyone was so happy. We really are a team that can get through anything.
“We believe in ourselves to the very end.”
Michigan State has had some shocking finishes under ninth-year coach Mark Dantonio, including victories over Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Stanford in the Rose Bowl.
But it’s hard to put any of them above this one, at Michigan State, with national championship implications on the line — and that finish, oh, that finish.
Safety Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped off the ball and fought his way into the end zone with time on the clock. Bedlam broke out on the field, as the 100,000-plus fans stared blankly for what seemed like eternity, trying to make sense of the nonsensical. Who wins a game like that? Michigan State wins a game like that.
“I had some crazy finishes in high school, but this is ... my first career start, this is something special, this is something you tell your grandkids about,” Miller said. “I’m at a loss for words.
“It just shows our belief in, I don’t want to say miracles, just how we can finish at the very end of the game.
“Anything can happen.”
How’s this for anything? Miller, a prized recruit out of Georgetown, Kentucky, was only told Monday that he would be making his first start Saturday, against Michigan of all teams, at the Big House of all places.
He got the official word from coaches along with his fellow safety, fellow freshman and best friend, Khari Willis.
By night’s end, it was Miller, blitzing off the edge, who had made a huge play to beat Michigan — just like his dad, John, did in 1987. Actually, his dad made four huge plays, catching four interceptions in MSU’s 17-12 victory over No. 12 Michigan in East Lansing on Oct. 10, 1987.
So, Grayson, does this beat your dad’s big feat?
“I don’t know about that,” he said, laughing. “But the finish? Absolutely.”
“He would’ve died for a finish like this.”
During his postgame chat with reporters, Grayson, who wears No. 44 like Pops, felt his cell phone vibrate at least three times in his pocket.
He was sure Dad was responsible for at least one, if not all three.
“He’s probably crying, happy, jumping, I have no idea, I couldn’t tell you,” Grayson Miller said. “He’s built me into what I am my entire life. My blood in this rivalry really runs deep, before I even played in this game.”
Here’s why he played in this game: See if you can follow along.
Senior safety RJ Williamson went down with a torn bicep in the Purdue game earlier this month, and sophomore safety Montae Nichlson has been struggling. That’s why junior Demetrious Cox, a safety originally who moved to cornerback to start the season, moved back over to safety last week.
But junior cornerback Darian Hicks suffered a concussion in last week’s win over Rutgers, so MSU decided it best to move Cox back to cornerback Saturday.
And, bam, enter Miller and Willis, who had mostly just played on special teams prior to Saturday’s critical — and exciting — opportunity.
“Khari is my best friend on this team. We’ve been saying all year, once we’re both playing ... we knew our time would be coming,” Miller said. “It starts now.
“We have a long time to build on it. Him and I are very confident.
“It’s just a personnel thing. Guys are going down.
“They told Khari and I we needed to step up, and I think we did that to the best of our ability. I felt good going into the game. I feel really great now.”
Said Willis: “They always say the best players play, so it was a great team win.
Nothing really stands out from Willis’ and Miller’s time on defense Saturday, though that could be considered a good thing. While Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock threw some deep passes on which he connected, nothing really got behind the safeties for the so-called home runs.
Miller said he felt like in the first quarter, he wasn’t being physical enough. That changed as the game went on, culminating with the last play.
MSU had an abysmal day on special teams, particularly its punting game. But the Spartans made one, big play, and that was more than enough, because it just happened to be the very last play. All week, MSU had talked about O’Neill could be blocked, because the Australia native is more accustomed to rugby, and so he’s slower than your typical punter in actually punting the ball.
While blitzing, Miller and Morrissey noticed O’Neill bobble the ball, and that’s when they struck, causing O’Neill to completely cough it up to Watts-Jackson, who scooped it up and played hero.
“We knew what we had to do and we went out there and executed the plan,” Miller said of himself and Willis, also 19. “They were confident in us, and we felt that belief.
“What a great start to our career.”