By RICKY LINDSAY, Editor-in-Chief
Michigan Stadium’s packed-to-the-brim crowd stood still in confusion, unable to comprehend what had just occurred.
Moments earlier, Michigan appeared to all but wrap up its first win over Michigan State in three seasons; all it needed to do was burn 12 seconds off the clock while facing a fourth-and-two situation from the Spartans’ 47 yard line.
The Wolverines elected to punt, but Blake O’Neill bobbled the snap, attempted to recover and put a leg to the ball as a vicious Michigan State defense stampeded towards him like a bull. The Spartans jarred the ball loose from a helpless O’Neill; hero Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped it up and raced towards the end zone for a 38-yard, game-winning touchdown.
In a mere 12 seconds, Michigan went from near-winner to definite-loser, falling to its rivals 27-23. The Spartans (7-0, 3-0), who hadn’t led Michigan (5-2, 2-1) until the game’s final whistle, raced towards their contingent of fans near the opposite end zone while no one could fathom what happened.
“It can’t be true,” defensive tackle Willie Henry said. “You go out there and play your hearts out with your teammates. To lose something like that, it’s hard to gather right now.”
Michigan had several options for what wound up being the game’s final play. But head coach Jim Harbaugh thought the best option was to punt.
“The options were to go for it. If you go for it, you leave them with a hail Mary opportunity. You could protect up and throw a long pass, probably still though, it would eat up seven seconds and they’d have the hail Mary opportunity,” Harbaugh said. “(We) ran through those scenarios but I thought the best decision was to punt it.
“I told (O’Neill to) catch it and punt it. When they lined up to the punt, (Michigan State) didn’t have any returners; just a matter of catching it and punting it. And we messed it up.”
Harbaugh’s first game against Mark Dantonio — a top-15 matchup televised nationally — lived up to the billing. But it was Dantonio’s Spartans who emerged victorious after a back-and-forth battle and wild fourth-quarter comeback.
Down 20-14 entering the fourth quarter, Michigan State, led by quarterback Connor Cook, scored 13 points to fuel the win. Cook threw for 328 yards and a touchdown in a gutsy performance against Michigan’s elite defensive unit.
Michigan State receiver Aaron Burbridge battled Jourdan Lewis, one of the game’s top corners, and won the statistical battle, catching nine passes for 132 yards.
Michigan’s simplistic offense continued to hum with a Harbaughian approach. Ten players saw the ball, including defensive back Jabrill Peppers, who totaled two receptions for 35 yards. Fullback Sione Houma was the team’s second-leading rusher and scored the game’s first points.
Michigan’s defense wouldn’t break, but it sure did bend against Michigan State. The Wolverines’ shutout streak ended — as many expected — but it flustered Cook and held the Spartans’ rushing attack to 58 yards.
With it appearing Michigan had its first win over Michigan State since 2012 through 59:48 minutes, the pain of losing in last-second fashion wasn’t easy to swallow.
“Playing against a rival team, playing for Paul Bunyan, to go out there and lose it in the final seconds like that, it hurts everybody,” Henry said. “I don’t think nobody is walking around in the locker room with a smile, enjoying that loss. It hurts everybody.”
Even in defeat, Harbaugh was proud of the Wolverines’ effort against Michigan State.
“They just kept fighting and fighting through things, which you’re so proud of as a coach,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys fought their hearts out. We’ll come back and we’ll build and we’ll steel ourselves against it.
“(There was) a lot of fight in our guys, I’m really proud of that. We played winning football and overcame a lot.”
Michigan enters its bye week matching last year’s win total. It plays Minnesota in Minneapolis on Oct. 31.