All offseason, No. 7 Michigan State had to bite its tongue and just listen as media far and wide talked incessantly about the addition of Jim Harbaugh to the Michigan football program. Even into the season, even as the Spartans were undefeated, they had dropped in the polls as the Wolverines were rising, leading some to argue that “Big Brother” was the best the Big Ten had to offer.
After all of that off-field talk, Sparty was about to add to the narrative with an on-field loss in the rivalry game… before one of the most astounding game-ending plays you’ll ever see went down.
Up 23-21 with just 10 seconds left on the clock, all No. 13 Michigan had to do was handle the punt snap and get the kick off cleanly to secure the win. The punter bobbled the snap, but still not a huge deal; just fall on the ball and force the Spartans to complete a Hail Mary to win from just shy of the 40-yard.
Instead, Blake O’Neill attempted to punt the ball and, well…
Unbelievably, the botched punt attempt was recovered by MSU’s Jalen Watts and returned for 38 yards for the walk-off touchdown. Even more unbelievably, the Spartans’ first lead of the game came with no time left on the clock, which means they never led in a game for a full 60 minutes — and won.
The loss was arguably the most gut-wrenching for the Wolverines in the rivalry’s long history, and served as its third straight in the series. Throughout most of the game, though, it appeared Harbaugh was ready to hoist his Wolverines onto the national stage in his first season in Ann Arbor.
Trailing 10-7 at halftime, the Spartans saw the Wolverines push their lead to their biggest of the game, with Sione Houma‘s second short touchdown run of the game pushing the score to 17-7. Over the next 15 minutes or so of play, MSU outscored UM 14-6 as a Connor Cook touchdown pass and L.J. Scott touchdown run — set-up by a beautiful 74-yard catch-and-run by fullback Trevon Pendleton — cut the lead to 23-21 with 8:56 left in the fourth quarter.
Three three-and-outs, two by U-M, followed Scott’s touchdown run. The Wolverines’ last punt gave the Spartans the ball at their own 28 with 4:54 remaining. Six plays later, MSU was knocking at the door of a game-winning field goal attempt at the U-M 36-yard line. A sack on first down and three subsequent Cook incompletions, however, ended any hopes for a come-from-behind win — or so everyone thought as O’Neill’s gaffe and Watts’ heroics rewrote a script that even Hollywood would pass on as unbelievable.