ANN ARBOR, Mich. – There have been a lot of memorable finishes in the fierce Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, but never one quite like this.
Michigan was 10 seconds away from handing the Spartans their first loss of the season, a successful punt from ending a seven-year span of dominance for Michigan State. Instead, a botched snap spiraled into the surreal. Sophomore Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball after Wolverines punter Blake O'Neill attempted to salvage a kick. Watts-Jackson followed a convoy of blockers roughly 40 yards for a touchdown that will talked about in this state for a long time to come. His dive into the end zone gave the Spartans a 27-23 victory as the clock expired.
"What can you say about that last play?" head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Unfortunate."
Watts-Jackson injured his hip in the celebration that followed. He had to be carted off the field on a stretcher and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said after the game Watts-Jackson was at the hospital.
The Wolverines built a 23-21 lead thanks in large part to special-teams play before the final play of the game. Kenny Allen converted all three of his field goal attempts (two from 38 yards and one from 21). Sophomore Jabrill Peppers helped set the offense up with good field position after strong returns in the kick and punt game. O'Neill booted several field-flipping kicks earlier in the game, including an 80-yarder that rolled to a stop at the Michigan State 1-yard line in the first half. All that proved to be for naught on the game's final play.
Michigan fullback Sione Houma added two touchdowns and a 27-yard run against an otherwise leak-proof Michigan State defense in the losing effort. The Spartans held Michigan to 77 rushing yards.
What the win means for Michigan State: The Spartans survive and advance once again. They've won their past three games by a combined 14 points, but remain unbeaten and a playoff contender at 7-0.
What the loss means for Michigan: The Wolverines have a bye week to recover from this heartbreaking loss. They will return in two weeks with a 5-2 record and hopes of a miracle season dashed. A Big Ten title is still not out of the question, but they'll need a loss or two by the Spartans in order to get there.
Uh, what? (most questionable decision): Referees ejected Michigan linebacker Joe Bolden for targeting in the second quarter on what will be a call debated for a long time. A Michigan State offensive lineman appeared to shove Bolden into Cook after he slid near the 40-yard line, but officials reviewed the play and upheld the decision. The call cost the Wolverines their top tackler. Two plays later, Michigan State scored its first touchdown. The review was one of seven times the referees went to the replay booth during Saturday’s game, including on three consecutive plays in the third quarter.
Top play: What else could it be? Watts-Jackson's 38-yard return will go down as one of the most memorable plays ever in this storied rivalry. Michigan players were stunned after the game. Defensive tackle Willie Henry said he stood on the sideline thinking, "It can't be true." On the other end of the field, Michigan State had trouble believing it, too. Cook told reporters, "It felt like a dream."