Wojo: Fearless Spartans continue to find ways to win

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The distance between heartbreak and heaven was never narrower, never more pronounced, never so stunningly revealed. It was an ending for the ages, as incredible as anyone will ever witness, a 10-second flurry that flipped seasons and altered fates.

The Spartans will remember this a long, long time. The Wolverines might remember it even longer. There were tears on both sides, numbness on both sides, and another burst of crazy exhilaration for Michigan State, which has turned this rivalry in brutal and cruel ways.

The final play immediately goes into the video vault of history – Michigan punter Blake O’Neill dropping the ball, then panicking and trying to kick it, only to fumble it directly to Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran 38 yards as time expired for the 27-23 victory Saturday.

The nasty twists went both ways, right down to the final ticks as Watts-Jackson crossed the goal line, fell to the turf and lay prone. As he scored, he suffered a hip injury – possibly dislocated or broken – and was already at the hospital as Mark Dantonio tried to sort it all out.

Once again, the Spartans will have the sweetness of victory to heal everything, and sustain their national-title hopes at 7-0. And once again – for the first time under Jim Harbaugh – the Wolverines (5-2) will gnaw on the bitterest of defeats in a rivalry that’s become lopsided, although hotly contested.

“Football is a crazy, crazy game,” Dantonio said. “You can’t hardly explain it, but we just had a belief. … Our dreams are kept alive. We want to congratulate our players and thank God for this because there’s surely something else to it besides physical.”

Michigan State has won so many games in the frantic final seconds, it can’t be brushed away as fluky, although this one stretched the boundaries of belief. There’s a fearlessness about them, reflected in Connor Cook’s pinpoint passes to Aaron Burbridge, who was covered by Michigan’s best defender, Jourdan Lewis.

It looked hopeless on the final play, but the Spartans sent 11 men at O’Neill and seized the slimmest of opportunities. Could Harbaugh have done something different strategically, maybe run another play on fourth-and-2 from Michigan State’s 47? That would’ve been risky because it probably wouldn’t have killed the 10 seconds, and would’ve give the Spartans a shot at a Hail Mary.

Finding a way

There didn’t seem to be much risk in having your punter simply get rid of the ball, preferably off his foot. Instead of a Hail Mary, it was a Hail Muffed Punt, as O’Neill bobbled the low snap and was swarmed. You see something like that and you’re willing to buy the mystical stuff that makes college football so compelling. How narrow is the gap between the tears? O’Neill, a graduate transfer from Australia, was a key component in Michigan’s terrific kicking game, up until his gaffe at the end.

The twists were staggering. Cook and his receivers were threatening to break it open all game, but on their final drive, Cook was sacked by Willie Henry, then threw three straight incompletions and it appeared to be over. After so many heart-pounding triumphs – the Hail Mary to beat Wisconsin, the “Little Giants” trick play to beat Notre Dame, the comeback to beat Baylor in the Cotton Bowl – it’s apparent the Spartans aren’t beaten until it’s over, and it’s almost never over.

This was their 12th straight Big Ten road victory, and after putting a stake in the Wolverines a year ago, the Spartans drove another one into their hearts. Harbaugh, like everyone else, was dazed.

“Guys fought their heart out and we’ll come out and we’ll build and we’ll steel ourselves against it,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of fight in our guys. So I’m really proud of that.”

It was an unartful slugfest made uglier by questionable officiating calls and replay reviews (for both sides). Speaking of cruel twists – Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden was ejected for a targeting penalty, which was an awful call. And of course, he was the one who wielded the stake before last year’s game, redemption denied.

This was taut, tenacious competition between two teams that couldn’t run the ball against each other’s staunch defense, but refused to stop trying. Michigan State has more playmakers and it showed, as Burbridge caught nine passes for 132 yards. Cook was only 18-for-39, but threw for 328 yards against a Michigan defense coming off three straight shutouts.

The Wolverines were crushed, as they should be, because few games in history have ended so dramatically and tilted emotions so wildly. But they have their flaws on offense – Jake Rudock didn’t turn the ball over but couldn’t hit big plays – and couldn’t quite compensate for them.

Making noise

The Spartans should be reignited now, after overcoming injuries across their offensive line and in the secondary, where they started two freshmen, Grayson Miller and Khari Willis. Their defense rose up, led by Shilique Calhoun’s two sacks, and if it plays like that, Michigan State will remain smack in the middle of the playoff talk.

Michigan State had more total yards (386-230) and more first downs (20-10) but was hampered by its kicking game, and by Jabrill Peppers’ fine returns. So naturally, the decisive play came in the kicking game, and sent the Spartans into peels of celebration that will echo in Michigan Stadium for years.

“Honestly, it felt like I was in a dream,” Cook said. “There’s nothing like a win in the Big House. To win in that fashion, 10 seconds left, the game was over, and that happened. To rush the field, looking around for who to celebrate with, who to hug, everyone’s just in tears, everyone is so mind-blown.”

There’s no other way to describe it. Dantonio said he felt numb – “a good numb” – and danced with his team in the locker room. The dances after momentous victories are getting commonplace, as is Michigan State’s hold on the Paul Bunyan Trophy.

This wasn’t about strategy or statements, although Michigan squandered a chance to make its own noise in the playoff picture. At the end, it was about raw emotion, and the thin line separating joy from jeers.

Calhoun was asked what he’d tell his grandkids about the game, and he tried to explain.

“I’m gonna tell them the Spartans prevailed, that above all else, that’s what we pride ourselves on,” he said. “We understand the game’s not over until there’s no time on the clock. This is the epitome of our offense, our defense, our special teams, our program. We’re never gonna quit. Just keep pushing hard, looking for that win even when it’s cloudy and no one is giving us a shot.”

With 10 seconds left, it was hard to believe the Spartans had any shot. And then they hit it, and it’s easier to believe they can do anything now.