From "Little Giants" to "Rocket," the Michigan State Spartans have a penchant for making memorable plays that will be talked about for years to come.
Last year, the play was "Little Giants." A fake field goal, with punter Aaron Bates throwing a pass to tight end Charlie Gantt in overtime, that gave Michigan State a thrilling 34-31 win over Notre Dame.
It was a defining moment in the Spartan's season, fueling a run of five consecutive victories that included wins over ranked Wisconsin and Michigan teams, and helped MSU eventually earn a share of the Big Ten title.
This year, the play was "Rocket." The name might not be as cute or amusing, but it's a lot more explanatory. There was no trickery or deception involved. This was just sending receivers deep to the end zone and the quarterback slinging the ball down the field. Just like you do with your buddies. Go deep and I'll hit you.
Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. And that's kind of what made this play so beautiful, something that's sure to be spoken of in hallowed terms by Michigan State fans for years to come. Kirk Cousins rolled out and launched the ball 55 yards down the field. A scrum of receivers and defensive backs waited for the fly ball.
Who can jump the highest? Bat it down! Who can wrestle the ball away for a catch? Bat it down!
The ball deflected off the hands of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, a receiver being used as an extra defensive back. Being an offensive player accustomed to trying to catch the ball, Abbrederis reverted to his usual habits and went for the reception, rather than doing what the defensive coaches were surely imploring him to do. Bat it down!
Instead of falling toward the turf, the ball stayed in the air and caromed off the facemask of MSU's B.J. Cunningham. You can only imagine what must have been going through his mind. The ball was literally right in his face. Sure, the action was happening so fast that reflexes couldn't keep up, especially with several players jostling for position, arms and hands flailing around. But the ball found its way to Cunningham, whose job it is to catch the ball. It was right there, yet it bounced away.
However, the bounce was a fortunate one for the Spartans, as the ball deflected into the hands of Keith Nichol, who's become something of a forgotten man in the MSU offenses. From contender for starting quarterback to third or fourth receiver not seeing much action come his way. But Nichol's not going to be forgotten for a very long time — if ever — after he got his hands on the ricocheting football.
Catching the ball was only half the battle, though. Two Wisconsin defenders immediately wrapped Nichol up, trying to push him back, away from the goal line. A third Badger joined in, then a fourth. But Nichol had just enough momentum, giving him just enough push to get the football tightly clamped in his arms over that goal line. Just enough.
It wasn't immediately apparent. The play was so hectic and the Wisconsin swarm around Nichol all happened so fast that the officials couldn't tell if the ball went over the line. Nichol's arms wrapped tightly around the ball surely made the call even tougher to determine. But that's why we have instant replay, to help the on-field officials see what they can't see.
Overturning a call on the field with replay is supposed to be all about conclusive video evidence. It's a point the game announcers emphasize repeatedly. Whenever I'm watching a game with friends or family, I'm always reminding them that replay needs to prove conclusively that the original call was wrong. And there it was on camera. The ball, in Nichol's arms, nudging just over the goal line. It was apparent, if not glaringly so, from a couple of different angles.
Was the evidence conclusive? Perhaps it depends on which side you're on. To Spartan eyes, it looked like the ball went over the line. To Badger eyes, it probably wasn't clear enough.
On Facebook after the game, a few presumably objective observers in my news feed — with no rooting interest — thought the play was simply too close to call. Besides, such an important game shouldn't be determined on a replay review. Go to overtime and let the teams play this out on the field. While I think I can see where that view is coming from, I thought there was enough evidence that Nichol was in the end zone. Review the video over and over, dissect it like the Zapruder film, and I think you'd eventually reach the same conclusion.
Touchdown, MSU! Spartans win, 37-31! Yet another thrilling finish for the Green and White at home, in primetime, in that northwest corner of the Spartan Stadium end zone. It's become the place where legendary plays are made.
And at the risk of making light of a serious situation, at least head coach Mark Dantonio was able to enjoy this win far more than last year's Notre Dame victory. He could savor this one with family and friends, rather than a hospital room after suffering a heart attack.
This win could end up being much sweeter, anyway. A win over Notre Dame is always big, but these days, defeating the Fighting Irish is beating a name and a tradition more than a college football power. Wisconsin came into Saturday looking like the obvious favorite in the Big Ten, perhaps one of the best teams in the country with a quarterback making a case for the Heisman Trophy.
(Personal aside: I watched Russell Wilson play second base for most of the spring and early summer with the Class A Asheville Tourists. I can't believe he's been able to transition back to football and play so well. It's pretty incredible.)
But maybe the schedule did the Spartans a bit of a favor, too. MSU was coming off a decisive win over Michigan. All week, the Spartans had to hear they were a dirty team, that William Gholston's unsportsmanlike conduct somehow tainted what was a hard-fought victory over a bitter in-state rival. Michigan State was confident, and surely also had a chip on its shoulder. That was quite an edge to carry into a clash with Wisconsin.
How far will this win carry the Spartans? Two tough road games remain, at Nebraska and at Iowa. But after beating what appeared to be an unbeatable Badgers team, the future looks promising for Michigan State. And with the Big Ten's new alignment, they won't have to share any conference titles and get screwed over by the BCS.
The only thing the Spartans might have to prove is whether or not they can beat Wisconsin again, if these two schools face each other in the Big Ten championship game. If the rematch is anything like the first meeting, that will be must-see TV.