Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Great moments in MSU sports history: Miracle at the Big House

March 19, 2020
Former redshirt freshman defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson runs the ball for the game-winning touchdown during the game against Michigan on Oct. 17, 2015 at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines, 27-23. Photo by Joshua Abraham. Design by Daena Faustino.
Former redshirt freshman defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson runs the ball for the game-winning touchdown during the game against Michigan on Oct. 17, 2015 at Michigan Stadium. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines, 27-23. Photo by Joshua Abraham. Design by Daena Faustino. —

Michigan State has canceled all sports activities as our community deals with the COVID-19 crisis. In a time when sports have ceased, The State News is looking back at great moments in Michigan State sports history. Soon, we’ll be back to a world with sports, but for now, the past will have to do.

Today, we’ll be looking at the 2015 rivalry football game between Michigan and Michigan State.

We’ll be compiling these moments into a bracket with the MSU community voting on the best one, starting on April 1, via Twitter.

Date: October 17, 2015

Venue: The Big House, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Matchup: No. 7 Michigan State (6-0) vs. No. 12 Michigan (5-1)

The background: This was the first time that the Spartan football team had made an appearance on The Big House turf since 2012. MSU had defeated U-M six of the last seven times they faced off.

The Wolverines were led by first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and entered the game with a 5-1 overall record, while the Spartans were 6-0.

The Wolverines had also recently touted the No. 2 total defense in the nation and were riding a three-game shutout streak with victories over Brigham Young, Maryland and Northwestern.

Despite being ranked five positions lower, U-M was found as the favored of the two by 6.5 points. Harbaugh had given something of a rejuvenation to their program.

This was also the first meeting of Mark Dantonio and Harbaugh. Dantonio has since retired, going down as the winningest coach in Michigan State sports history.

The game: The first quarter of the game put both teams' defensive lines to the test. MSU was able to move the ball effectively near the end of the clock, but turned it over on downs following a failed fourth down conversion attempt.

U-M came out in the lead with 7-0 shortly into the second quarter on a two-yard touchdown by former fullback Sione Houma, capping off an eight-play, 72-yard drive.

Several drives later, and during an MSU possession, former U-M linebacker and team captain Joe Bolden was penalized for targeting during a six-yard run by former MSU quarterback Connor Cook. The call was confirmed by replay and Bolden was ejected for the remainder of the game.

MSU snapped U-M's aforementioned shutout streak in the final minutes of the first half of the game with an 11-yard scamper by former running back LJ Scott.

The third quarter of the game hit a snag on the opening possession after several goal line attempts from the MSU one-yard line. It took officials a significant chunk of time on the final try to blow the play dead and determine that Houma did actually score.

Though that didn't matter as their 17-7 lead quickly became 17-14 when MSU wide receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. caught a 30-yard pass from Cook.

The game continued into the fourth quarter where U-M was up 23-14. MSU responded, trying to desperately catch up to their in-state rivals.

Cook found a wide open fullback Trevon Pendleton, who caught a pass for the first time all season and ran the ball to the maize and blue's one-yard line. The play was originally called by officials as a touchdown, but after review it was reversed. This was the longest offensive play all year for the green and white at 74 yards.

Facing a fourth and two with 10 seconds left on the game clock, U-M lined up to punt the ball. Earlier, former punter Blake O'Neill had booted an 80-yard punt and he played well all game.

However, after receiving a low snap, O'Neill fumbled the ball. His recovery efforts failed as former MSU linebacker Grayson Miller knocked him out of the way, forcing his arm to slap the ball into the air where it was caught by then-redshirt freshman, former MSU safety Jalen Watts-Jackson.

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"Whoa, he has trouble with the snap … and the ball is free!" screamed ESPN sportscaster Sean McDonough, who was announcing the game as the scene unfolded in front of him. "It's picked up by Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson … and he scores! On the last play of the game! Unbelievable! Michigan State is still the big boy on the block in the state of Michigan. A shocking ending to this rivalry game."

It was the play heard round the world as Jackson returned the ball to the end zone as the game clock expired, pulling the Spartans ahead for the unforeseen win, 27-23.

The aftermath: The Spartans won seven of eight in the series, marking their best stretch in more than half of a century. Michigan lost for the first time since opening the 2015 season with a setback at Utah.

The green and white went on from their miracle at The Big House with their College Football Playoff hopes still intact. They improved their record to 7-0 overall for the first time since 2010.

The win was the fourth time in 46 games that the team with the fewest rushing yards came out as top dog, MSU having only ran for 58 yards total.

Dantonio both improved his record against U-M to 7-2 and earned his 100th career coaching victory.

Jackson, the hero for the Spartans, injured his hip on his game-winning play and was required to have season-ending surgery afterwards, though it was not career-threatening.

The 2015 season was one of the most successful seasons in university history. The team went on with an almost undefeated run, securing its third Big Ten Championship and finishing with both a record and their fifth 11-win season in six years.

Michigan State football will be taken over by former Colorado coach Mel Tucker in the upcoming season, who looks to re-establish the Spartans as a national powerhouse.

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