It was a sight almost never before seen, an ending so rare and ridiculous, it enters the debate for college football's all-time shockers. And as the reverberations ripple, it begs the question: What, exactly, did we witness?
We saw Michigan State do what it does, win close games by whatever means (and good fortune) necessary. We saw Michigan finally scrap evenly with its rival. We saw Michigan punter Blake O'Neill suffer an excruciating fate, muffing a snap with 10 seconds left that led to a 38-yard touchdown return by Jalen Watts-Jackson and a 27-23 Michigan State stunner.
But mainly we saw the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry spin into a whole new realm of relevance. In a dramatic clash that received the highest TV rating for an October game in ESPN history, perceptions about both teams were reinforced, and even enhanced. There certainly was nothing to diminish, and it was reflected in the AP poll — Michigan State remained No. 7 and Michigan slipped slightly to No. 15.
Michigan State is 7-0 with three consecutive last-minute victories, but questioning Mark Dantonio's team is pretty silly at this point. The Spartans have won 33 of 36, and plenty have been by more than a score. This one had a fluky ending, sure, but this is not a fluky run. Michigan State has two more road tests — Nebraska and Ohio State — and home games against Indiana, Maryland and Penn State. The Spartans probably will have to win them all to reach the national playoff, but there's a whiff of destiny in the air, isn't there?
Even in crushing defeat, Michigan was enhanced too, in what's likely the first of multiple fierce in-state tiffs. Once fans recover from their nausea, they'll recognize Jim Harbaugh's program is still churning upward at 5-2, with a signature victory possibility at home against Ohio State.
Michigan's vaunted defense was dented at times, but its authenticity was mostly confirmed. As clutch and dangerous as Connor Cook and Aaron Burbridge are, the Wolverines stopped them on the last two drives, collecting two sacks and forcing six incompletions. The game was over after Cook's fourth-and-19 misfire from Michigan's 45, and then it wasn't over at all.
Social media cowards ruin day
This was so hotly competitive, it didn't even require the standard postgame posturing and preening — I think everyone was too numb to boast about anything. The only notable acts of incivility came from the usual social-media cowards who wished vile things upon O'Neill, a senior transfer from Australia.
Sadly, it's become common-place for idiots to vent, but this apparently was nasty enough to elicit a response Sunday from Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett. He released a letter that said, in part, "This Saturday's game continued to prove the progress that we are making in our football program. … Today I awake to the shocking reality that our community who care so much about this program would send hurtful, spiteful and vicious comments to one of our students."
Unfortunately, this is how it sometimes goes in big-time sports. It's not as simple as determining winners and losers, but planting blame in all the right places. Go ahead and blame O'Neill for the mistake, but don't lose sight of the day's message.
It's a message that bears repeating: Michigan is coming on, and Michigan State is not going away.
"I hope our program's been validated by now," Dantonio said, knowing it absolutely has. "We've won 11-plus games four times, so we're not the weak sisters there, no pun."
No, that wasn't a dig at Michigan, but a quick quip at the end of a long day. Dantonio spoke respectfully after his seventh victory in eight games in the rivalry, knowing this was as close as you can get to defeat without tasting it.
Talent on both teams
And it was as close as the Wolverines could get to victory without tasting it. If you line up the two teams across the board, I think the Spartans have more talent in a few key spots — quarterback, receiver, offensive line — and Shilique Calhoun is a difference-maker on defense.
The Wolverines have a decisive edge in special teams — uh, the final play notwithstanding — and the secondary. Everywhere else, the teams are close, something you couldn't say without chuckling the past few years.
Jake Rudock is limited, but he's also limiting his turnovers. The offense's potential is evident, especially when someone more dynamic — transfer John O'Korn? — takes over at quarterback next season.
"We'll have resolve, good steel in the spine and we'll move forward," Harbaugh said. "There's so much good. Guys that played big in the big game, and overcame so much."
Harbaugh griped a bit about referee calls and it indeed was a bizarrely officiated game for both teams. That was the emotional postgame reaction, but it won't be the lasting image.
The lasting image was written on the exhausted faces — ecstatic ones and distraught ones — of two teams and two fan bases that had witnessed something unprecedented and inexplicable. When the shock subsides, I bet more and more will appreciate the importance of what transpired.