As senior quarterback Kirk Cousins heaved the ball 44 yards up the field on a Hail Mary pass, senior wide receiver Keith Nichol waited patiently to see where it would fall.
Nichol ran up the field and stopped a couple yards short of the end zone — where senior wide receiver B.J. Cunningham and sophomore tight end Dion Sims already were waiting. The ball slipped through Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis’ hands, bounced off Cunningham’s face mask and popped back up toward Nichol.
After Nichol’s catch was ruled a touchdown, Spartan Stadium erupted in celebration of the game-winning play. Nichol was in the right place at the right time.
“‘There’s no way I didn’t get in on that’ — that’s the first thing I thought,” Nichol said after MSU’s 37-31.
“We just call that ‘Rocket.’ Every team has that play.”
From starting his college career as a true freshman quarterback at Oklahoma, Nichol said he never would have imagined he’d become a developed wide receiver who won the game for MSU on a tipped ball.
“We talk about (how) you don’t know when your time is going to come for you to make a play,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “You have to believe that you’re going to be the guy that makes the play because you don’t know when you’re going to have that opportunity.”
In what Dantonio and players called a team effort, the Spartans quickly fell down 14-0 early and used a safety, two interceptions, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt to take down Wisconsin.
But while Nichol, Cunningham and senior wide receiver Keshawn Martin were on the receiving end of big plays, it was Cousins’ arm making the difference.
With Saturday marking his 22nd career victory, Cousins now is the winningest quarterback in MSU history. In his 20th career 200-yard game, he completed 22-of-31 passes for 290 yards and three touchdowns while out-playing Heisman hopeful Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson.
Pleased with his performance, Dantonio said Cousins was “on the money” Saturday — not only in his down-field throw to Nichol, but also in his numerous completions to Martin and Cunningham, including a fourth-and-two 35-yard touchdown pass and a two-point conversion.
“I have nothing but great things to say about him,” Cunningham said. “We all have had his back the whole time, and I feel like he came out (Saturday), led us to victory, and he deserves to be the most winningest quarterback here, and I wouldn’t want anybody else to have it.”
Despite Cousins receiving some criticism this season, senior offensive guard Joel Foreman said Cousins is “a blessing to have” on the team because of his ability to lead the Spartans out of a two-touchdown deficit to finish with a game-winning, 44-yard “rocket” to the end zone.
“It’s a testament not to me, but a testament to my teammates and a testament to the program that our coaching staff has built,” Cousins said.
“I don’t think many people gave me a chance coming out of Holland Christian (High School) to be anywhere close to the winningest quarterback here.”
MSU rose to the occasion on national TV when many people — including College GameDay’s Lee Corso — picked the Spartans to lose a big game such as Saturday’s. When the team responds by controlling the game to take the win, junior defensive tackle Jerel Worthy said the team grows closer together.
Continuing to win games that the Spartans are predicted to lose shows what kind of team and program Dantonio is developing, Worthy said. Coming from behind, Dantonio trains his players to fight until the end, and it paid off this time around.
“Week in and week out, nobody (ever) really wants to give the Spartans a chance,” Worthy said.
“We’ve just kind of got to go out there and keep playing with a chip on our shoulders. To be honest, I like being the underdog because you really have nothing to lose.”
“Everybody is picking against you anyway, so when you go out there and shock the world, it feels great.”