Michigan fumbles lead away on final play against Michigan St
Oct. 18, 2015
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — For over a month, Jim Harbaugh's return to Michigan seemed almost too good to be true.
The Wolverines weren't merely winning, they were dominating, having been transformed almost overnight into legitimate contenders for the Big Ten championship.
A matchup with seventh-ranked Michigan State was going to be the final validation — proof that the Wolverines really were back among the conference's elite. And with 10 seconds remaining, all 12th-ranked Michigan needed to do was punt the ball and watch the seconds tick away.
"Played winning football, overcame so much," Harbaugh said. "Messed up on that final play."
That final play will go down in Michigan Stadium history, right alongside Michael Westbrook's catch and Appalachian State's blocked field goal. With 10 seconds left Saturday and the Spartans rushing almost every player, Michigan punter Blake O'Neill mishandled a snap near his own 40. The loose ball ended up in the hands of Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson, who took off toward the end zone and eventually fell over the goal line amid a mob of players to give the Spartans a 27-23 win — one of the most unforgettable victories by a visiting team at the Big House.
"A mistake was made," Harbaugh said somberly. "Mistakes were made. It's very unfortunate circumstances."
The Wolverines (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) lost for the seventh time in the last eight meetings with their in-state rivals, and they never trailed in this one until Watts-Jackson's 38-yard return on the final play. Michigan had stopped the Spartans (7-0, 3-0) on fourth down near midfield with 1:47 remaining, and since Michigan State had only one timeout left, the Wolverines were able to run the clock all the way down before trying to punt on fourth-and-2.
A few of the nearly 112,000 fans in attendance began heading for the exits. Some jammed into the small tunnels leading out of the seating bowl, where it was possible to catch the last few seconds before making a quick getaway.
"The snap was low, just below the knees. He didn't field it cleanly," Harbaugh said. "He bobbled it and it looked like he tried to kick it in traffic. Very unfortunate."
The Wolverines played their first game at Michigan Stadium in 1927, and there haven't been many that have ended this dramatically. In 1994, Westbrook caught a deflection for a 64-yard touchdown on the final play to give Colorado a 27-26 win over Michigan.
The loss to Appalachian State came in 2007, when Michigan's attempt at a winning field goal was blocked. The Wolverines have been largely adrift since then.
Harbaugh's hiring came with the promise of better days ahead, and he appears well on his way to fulfilling those hopes. But on this day, Michigan State escaped.
O'Neill was not one of the players Michigan made available to reporters after the game. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio was asked what he'd say to O'Neill as a coach.
"Same thing I say to my guys. Things happen. Don't be too hard on yourself," Dantonio said. "You're looking for effort, he gave effort. You're looking for toughness, he plays with toughness. I've seen him punt enough balls. I would like to say it's unfortunate but I just can't."
Wolverines defensive end Willie Henry described his emotions in the immediate aftermath of the play.
"Can't be true. Couldn't gather it all, to lose so close," he said. "It probably won't hit me until tomorrow."
Michigan hadn't allowed a point in its previous three games and came in favored by about a touchdown over the undefeated Spartans. The Wolverines managed only 230 yards of offense, but Sione Houma ran for two touchdowns and Kenny Allen kicked three field goals.
Until the end, it looked like special teams would be the difference — in Michigan's favor. O'Neill had an 80-yard punt in the first quarter that bounced and rolled all the way to the Michigan State 2. Jabrill Peppers was brilliant returning punts and kickoffs, and Michigan stopped a fake punt in the third quarter.
Then, cruelly, it all slipped away.
"It was a heck of a football game," Harbaugh said. "Didn't get the results."
NOTES: Michigan LB Joe Bolden was ejected in the second quarter for targeting.
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