MSU was in need of a big play. In unfamiliar territory, trailing 27-13 with a little more than six minutes remaining, the Spartans knew they would have to score quickly.
But with Michigan in possession of the football and senior running back Chris Perry rolling to a career day, the odds appeared low.
So MSU head coach John L. Smith gambled, blitzing for one of the first times in the game. He sent junior bandit Robert Flagg on a first-down play, where he hit U-M quarterback John Navarre, forcing a fumble that junior defensive end Clifford Dukes pounced on and returned the ball 65 yards for a touchdown.
"That decision was mine to throw the football there, and it was a bad one," Wolverine head coach Lloyd Carr said after the Wolverines' 27-20 win.
The play brought the Spartans within seven points. But MSU's defense could not hold on again. The Wolverines rattled off three first downs and ran the clock down to 1:12 before punting to MSU.
On that drive, on a second-and-8 play, junior defensive tackle Matthias Askew was called for a personal foul, while the Spartans had stopped U-M for a loss. So, instead of facing a third-and-9 with two timeouts and 2:30 minutes remaining, the Spartans were forced to use their final timeouts, and the clock ran down a minute longer before they received the ball.
Askew grabbed U-M senior center Dave Pearson's helmet, removing it and holding it up in the air in celebration.
"It's real disturbing, but I don't want to get into that," Smith said of the play. "That's a selfish thing that we need to correct."
On the other side of the ball, Navarre was confident that his offense would run down the clock, after they converted on 13 of 18 third downs during the game and had 29 first downs to MSU's 13.
"I know that we slipped and put them back in the game there, and I was confident that our offense was doing some great things and moving so well that when we got the ball back, we were determined that we weren't going to allow that to happen again like they did to us two years ago," Navarre said.
Besides the last-second score by Louisiana Tech, the latest the Spartans had trailed in a game all season was with nearly seven minutes remaining in the second quarter against Rutgers, when kick returner DeAndra Cobb quickly returned a kickoff for a touchdown to tie that game with the Scarlet Knights.
"Every week we've come out, jumping on people with seven, 14 points in the first quarter, and we didn't do that today," Smoker said. "We showed that we could come back, but we just didn't get into the end zone in the end."
The senior quarterback's teammates saw a different side of him than they had before, when he tried to rally the team in the fourth quarter.
"Jeff kept running down the sidelines yelling 'Never say die,'" senior guard Paul Harker said. "We had a chance and got back into it but fell just short."
Smoker maintained his poise, even spending time signing autographs for fans outside of the Spartans tunnel after the game.
While the Wolverines converted 72 percent of their third downs, the MSU offense stalled because it could not convert, making three of its 13 tries.
That led to the Spartans falling behind, but they somehow remained close, despite losing the yardage battle 439 to 290. The one statistic that again played in their favor, however, was winning the turnover battle 2-to-1.
"We definitely did miss an opportunity here," Smoker said. "It's the best team we've played yet this year. We had a chance to make a big statement, and we couldn't do it."
Staff writer Joe Guillen contributed to this report.