It was one of the most memorable plays of the 2015 season. It will remain one of the most memorable plays in college football history, especially considering the context.
Down 23-21 with 10 seconds to go against archrival Michigan, the Michigan State Spartans needed a special teams miracle. It was fourth and two from the MSU 47-yard line. Jim Harbaugh decided to punt and either hope the return ran out the clock or left the Spartans with just a few seconds left for an especially improbable Hail Mary of 70 yards or more.
Instead, we got this:
No. 7 MSU won the game, 27-23, on that special teams miracle it was hoping for. The Spartans went on to make the College Football Playoff. Without this play, MSU may not have even made it to the Big Ten Championship Game, let alone the CFP.
The fact that it happened against Michigan made the play that much sweeter for the Spartan faithful.
In the game of football, miracles don’t just happen. There are reasons this came play to be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we’re going to examine that in today’s Film Room Friday.
This has been talked about before, but not on this forum, so let’s focus on this point for a second:
Notice in the picture below that Michigan has a “gunner” split wide to its left. Here’s the thing to focus on: MSU is in full punt-block mode with ALL 11 players selling out to block the kick. There’s not even a returner for the gunner to stop, and notice how many rushers that left wide open for MSU:
The next thing to pay attention to is this: Generally in a punt block situation, the offensive line should block to the inside. The thought process behind that is simple: The easiest way between two points is a straight line, so the line must force the rush to go around the edge. In the next frame you can see that all of Michigan’s linemen step inside except one who blocks outside.
That leaves a huge gap for Jalen Watts-Jackson to shoot. Sure enough, he’s the one who ultimately comes away with the fumble:
As a side note, notice the pressure coming off the other edge above. Then take a look at the Michigan gunner running toward empty grass. That’s not a good look, especially when just one more blocker on that edge could have stopped the pressure that ultimately caused the fumble.
Now we’ll fast forward a few frames to where this all goes wrong for Michigan. An argument can be made that the Wolverines already set themselves up for failure here, but to make things worse punter Blake O’Neill drops the ball. Michigan’s personal protection wall is sliding right, and again notice that the rush to O’Neill’s left is starting to close — with very few Michigan helmets in the way:
The breakdown accelerates here for Michigan: The blocking has completely fallen apart. MSU’s rush from its right side has closed in on O’Neill, who has not regained possession of the football. On the opposite side, you can see that even though Watts-Jackson encounters the second line of blockers, he manages to “get skinny” and rip through to the outside. This is the most important detail in the whole play, because he ends up right where the football is.
One more crazy point: Only two seconds have been taken off the clock so far. Life comes at you fast.
This has to be like watching a nightmare if you’re a Michigan fan. The punter is able to get the ball, but instead of falling on it and causing a turnover on downs, O’Neill tries to be ambitious. Falling on the ball near the 40 would give MSU likely seven seconds to at least get into field goal range, but it would also put the game back onto Michigan’s defense, which was a very tough bunch. That’s a bad scenario, but bad doesn’t mean “worst.”
O’Neill — refusing to fall on the ball — tries to spin around and use his momentum to hook kick an improvised punt. Meanwhile, MSU’s rush has just about reached him, and you can see a Spartan helmet in the circle. That player knocks the ball away, rendering O’Neill’s plan useless.
A final point: Notice the positioning of Watts-Jackson. It’s better to be lucky than good, because technically the blocker did a decent job getting him away from the play:
Below you’ll see the ball squirt away. Look at the trajectory of it all — an almost perfect synchronization:
The rest of this play goes down in Michigan State lore, and Michigan infamy:
So yes, some luck was involved in this play. Watts-Jackson was in the right place at the right time, and that’s not something you can coach or plan for.
To say that this play was a miracle was a bit of a mischaracterization, though, because as you can see, a handful of real-time decisions made this play possible.