Wild ‘gift six’ will reverberate for Spartans, Wolverines all season and beyond
The game was 10 seconds from being over.
Michigan would hold off Michigan State. Jim Harbaugh’s legend would grow that much larger. Mark Dantonio’s stranglehold on his state’s rivalry would end. The annual Ohio State-Michigan game would become that much bigger.
And then, with one incomprehensible special teams sequence, none of that was true.
The dropped punt snap that allowed Michigan State to "upset" the hated Wolverines on Saturday immediately altered the course of two teams’ seasons and, perhaps, the College Football Playoff race. A simple, seemingly anticlimactic moment we’ve seen thousands of times — one team running out the last 10 seconds against another — went terribly wrong for Michigan.
No consensus had emerged Saturday night for a name befitting a play we’ll surely remember for ages. The Gift Six? Bungle at the Big House? #FAIL to the Victors? It was college football’s craziest ending since at least 2013’s Auburn Kick Six return against Alabama, and maybe longer than that. On the one hand, the stakes were bigger in that one (Auburn, not Alabama, advanced to the SEC title game). On the other hand, that game was tied and appeared headed to overtime.
In this case, Michigan State, having never led the entire game, was 10 seconds away from losing … until suddenly it won.
"You think it’s done," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said afterward. "Then life is flipped upside down."
Even before Jalen Watts-Jackson’s game-winning fumble return, the Spartans and Wolverines had staged a classic old-school standoff. Two stout defenses completely shut down their opponent’s rushing game. Michigan State’s biggest play was a 74-yard pass to a fullback. Michigan spent entire drives setting up that one play-action shot downfield. The 23-21 score it appeared the Wolverines would win by actually seemed deceivingly high.
Throw in the crisp October weather in Ann Arbor, and it felt like a game that could have just as easily been played 40 years prior.
But the Big Ten isn’t quite ready to go full retro just yet. Harbaugh certainly has Michigan heading in the right direction, but those last 10 seconds ensured that the conference won’t return to revolving around Ohio State-Michigan just yet. On the contrary, Michigan State (7-0) all but relegated nemesis Michigan (5-2) to a spoiler role the rest of the way.
The top-ranked Buckeyes (7-0) handled Penn State (5-2) with relative ease Saturday night. It appears, just as it did before the season, that the Big Ten East will come down to the Nov. 21 Michigan State-Ohio State showdown in Columbus, a game most likely to match undefeated teams.
Michigan could certainly turn around and defeat the Buckeyes a week later in Ann Arbor, but its non-conference loss to Utah would likely preclude it from winning any convoluted divisional tiebreakers.
And then there’s Iowa. The Hawkeyes improved to 7-0 with their 40-10 rout of Northwestern on Saturday and face the farthest thing from a murderer’s row the rest of the way. Could it be that 12-0 Ohio State or Michigan State faces 12-0 Iowa in the Big Ten championship game?
All of that’s admittedly looking pretty far ahead, which is rarely wise. As college football reminded us Saturday, you can’t even look past the next 10 seconds.