Before catch, Nichol had to find his niche
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)
After all these years, Keith Nichol finally ended up in the right place at the right time.
The Michigan State wide receiver was in the middle of perhaps most memorable play of the season so far, catching a last-ditch heave off a carom for the winning touchdown in a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday night. It was an unlikely way to win a game, but then again, not much about Nichol's career has gone according to plan.
''I've always just kind of gone with what was asked of me,'' Nichol said. ''I've felt like I had to earn every single thing that I have. I'm glad that the hard work paid off and that we were able to win a game like that.''
Nichol was a high school star at quarterback in Lowell, about 60 miles west of East Lansing. He was set to go to Michigan State when coach John L. Smith was fired at the end of the 2006 season. Suddenly, Nichol had a decision to make, with Oklahoma offering him another option.
''Coach (Bob) Stoops flies to my house the day after they win a Big 12 championship game,'' Nichol said. ''I was a 17-year-old kid. I was like, `OK, there's some security in that. Michigan State doesn't have a coach right now.'''
The Spartans hired Mark Dantonio, and Nichol joined the Sooners, but his stay at Oklahoma was a short one. Sam Bradford emerged as the top quarterback there, and Nichol threw all of seven passes as a freshman. The travel was tough for his family, and Nichol transferred back to his home state to play for the Spartans.
But there was a catch. By 2009, Kirk Cousins was coming into his own at Michigan State. He and Nichol split time at quarterback that season, with Cousins the starter. When the Spartans went to the Alamo Bowl shorthanded amid a slew of suspensions, Nichol started at wide receiver and caught a couple passes.
''He's a great wide receiver - catches the ball very well. Obviously he can throw it and run it as a quarterback,'' Dantonio said. ''I think he's the model for our football team in terms of sacrifice and commitment and trust for our program. He's done a tremendous job.''
By last season, the conversion was in full swing. In the opening game, Nichol caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cousins. He finished the season with 22 receptions.
''I couldn't have done it,'' Cousins said. ''It says a lot about his hard work, his work ethic, his attention to detail, his passion for this game. It says a lot about him as a person.''
As a receiver, Nichol is still a role player, playing a bit under the radar while teammates B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin make more big plays. Nichol is tied for fourth on the team this season with 12 catches.
But no one is likely to forget his most recent one.
With the game tied at 31 and 4 seconds left, Cousins rolled out to his right and threw about as far as he could. Nichol wasn't all that concerned with the ball at first. His job was to position himself down the field, not far from Cunningham, and be ready for a tipped ball.
So Nichol went where he was told - and found himself in the perfect spot at last.
The ball bounced off Cunningham, right into Nichol's arms.
''I saw the ball come down and kind of bounce up,'' Nichol said. ''As soon as it went up in the air, I said, `This is mine, and we just won the game as long as I can put my hands on it and catch it.'''
Nichol was actually just outside the end zone when he secured the ball, but he was able to fight through tacklers, barely reaching the goal line to win the game. Now he's a minor celebrity in the East Lansing area, drawing double takes on campus and other unusual gestures.
''My family's getting flowers sent to their house,'' Nichol said. ''My friends told me to get a Twitter, so I joined that world now. I don't even know what's going on there.''
The ninth-ranked Spartans are in the middle of an exciting October. They've already beaten Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin this month, and this weekend they play at 13th-ranked Nebraska in a game that could have major division title implications in the Big Ten.
Now in his final season of eligibility, Nichol has earned the respect of his team - and for one night at least, he had the attention of a nation's worth of college football fans.
''I'm so happy for him and the way Saturday night ended up - with the ball in his hands,'' said Cousins, another senior. ''But I think he's got plenty of good plays left in him these last several games of our careers. It's going to be fun to watch him down the stretch here. I think there's more to be seen.''