This is sport of a thousand moving parts; technique and force working together. It is a sport of early mornings spent in weight rooms and countless nights of film study to prepare for 12 Saturdays of perfections. It is a sport of nerves and emotions and controversial referee calls and inexplicable coaching decisions, and most of the time it is pure chaos.
And somewhere in between, we find reasons to put all of that madness in a tidy box, to label coaches and players for being one thing or another, to create narratives about what teams are or aren’t.
But then you watch Michigan State 27, Michigan 23 and you realize there are times none of that stuff means anything at all. You wonder whether college football is ever a thing we can fully wrap our arms around and whether there’s really any point in explaining what we just watched because there is nothing that can do it justice.
College football happened Saturday night at Michigan Stadium, in all of its glory and folly and heart-pounding tension. It happened as Michigan’s hair-on-fire defense brilliantly stopped Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook on three consecutive passes to seemingly win the game. It happened as Michigan punter Blake O’Neill — needing to do nothing more than get off a punt with 10 seconds left, or just fall on the ball if somehow the worst happened — mishandled a snap. It happened as Michigan State swarmed him, scooping up the fumble, taking it toward the goal line. And it happened as Michigan State safety Jalen Watts-Jackson got a block, fell into the corner of end zone and broke his hip all in one glorious, painful, miraculous play.
And at the end, it was simply college football. It is the best. It is the worst.
“It’s crazy,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. “It’s crazy.”
Michigan State is 7-0 and ranked No. 4 and very much able to achieve all of its goals.
Lucky? Sure. The Spartans only got to this point because Oregon’s Vernon Adamsoverthrew a wide open receiver and Rutgers spiked the ball on fourth down and a kid from Australia who has been a very good punter for Michigan screwed up in the worst way someone can screw up.
But is there something more at play for Michigan State, a program that is 30-3 since the start of 2013 with all kinds of close games and crazy comebacks? And would you blame Michigan State at this point for believing that?
“The Spartans prevailed,” defensive end Shilique Calhoun said. “The game's not over until there’s no time on the clock. I didn’t think it was over when the punt team went out there. Anything is possible.”
And though you can go on and on about the winning culture Dantonio has built and the never-say-die attitude the Spartans carry onto the field and the toughness of quarterback Connor Cook — every bit of which is true — today doesn’t feel like the day for narratives.
Sometimes, chaos wins. Sometimes, a kid just messes up. Sometimes, a game is remembered for a play that should have been incidental to the outcome but, in the span of 10 seconds, became everything. Sometimes a team wins that doesn’t lead until there’s 0:00 on the clock.
“Our guys played big in the big game and overcame so much, calls that were made, calls that weren’t made,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “They just kept fighting and overcame so much in the ballgame and ultimately played winning football. And then what do you say about the last play? It was unfortunate.”
There are theoretically dozens of things Michigan could have done to prevent disaster in that situation. Had Harbaugh put a running back in and told him to run around for two or three seconds, then chuck the ball as far as he could, it would have — at worst — left Michigan State a few seconds to try a Hail Mary.
But in the end, this was a routine play and Michigan had, for all intents and purposes, won the game. It had stopped Michigan State on two drives with 6:41 remaining and 1:47 left, survived a physical battle filled with controversial penalties and announced its arrival as a Big Ten contender.
All the Wolverines needed was four clean snaps around the 50-yard line and this college football season was going to be turned on its head, with Michigan as the team to beat in the Big Ten and Michigan State’s best chance at a dream season ruined forever.
“Obviously we were hoping to get the ball back and maybe get a lateral play and score,” Cook said.
Even if Michigan State had blocked the punt, the number of things that would have had to go right from there was improbable. The Spartans do not have a reliable long-distance field goal kicker. They would have, at most, one offensive play.
“You think it’s done,” Dantonio said. “Then life is flipped upside down.”
Dantonio, like most of his players, saw only the low snap and the ball bouncing and then a crowd of green and blue. There was no time to process what was happening, no time to react. He thought, for a moment, that maybe Watts-Jackson would go down with a second remaining to set up a field goal. Then he saw the clock had run out and prayed for the end zone.
“It honestly felt like a dream,” Cook said. “You're just looking for someone to celebrate with, to find someone to run over and hug. Everyone was just mind-blown.”
With Harbaugh at Michigan and Dantonio bringing the Spartans to an elite level, this is going to be a beautiful and bloody rivalry. But there will be no escaping what happened here Saturday, the same way every Auburn-Alabama game will be framed by the Kick Six and Cal-Stanford by a band on the field.
This ending was every bit their equal, every bit as mystical, every bit as jaw-dropping.
Michigan State won and Michigan lost, even though everything that had happened for the first 59:50 of the game suggested it would be the opposite. But every now and then college football makes fools out of common sense and justice. That’s when this sport is at its most painful. That’s when it’s at its most beautiful.