The final play of Michigan State’s 27-23 win over Michigan was an instant classic, an unbelievable, preposterous turn of events that ascended directly into the college football firmament. That’s not knee-jerk, Monday-morning hyperbole: It’s already there, residing confidently alongside the indelible likes of the Hail Flutie, the Kick Six, and The Band Is On the Field. College football’s greatest hits. Like those moments, Jalen Watts-Jackson’s game-winning fumble return will be ritually chronicled, commemorated, memorialized, and oral historied for years, long after anyone is able to recall the name Jalen Watts-Jackson or the fact that the Spartans’ improbable sophomore hero suffered a broken hip amid the bedlam. It cannot be escaped. Michigan fans, already prone as a group to relishing ennui and angst in lieu of the perpetual dominance they regard as their birthright, will trot out the memory at opportune moments like an old shrapnel wound, accompanied by well-practiced war stories recounting where they were and how they reacted in the decisive seconds. It may be the single most soul-crushing sports moment I’ve ever witnessed. It will never make sense.
That’s not the same thing as saying it “defied description,” which isn’t quite right, even if the obvious adjectives all feel dim and inadequate. You could describe it as “stunning,” “shocking,” “unbelievable,” or “epic,” all of which is strictly true. If you’re aiming for broader context you could drop in a fancy label like “quintessential,” which also applies if you think about all the ways the college game — with its cross-state rivalries, its magnified regular-season stakes, and its frequent-yet-random bouts of absurdity — distinguishes itself from the pros. The last-second touchdown did, after all, make it into the official play-by-play, somehow.1
The entry, in full: “12-O’Neill, Blake rush for loss of 15 yards to the MICH38, fumble by 12-O’Neill, Blake recovered by MSU 20-Watts-Jackson at MICH38, 20-Watts-Jackson for 38 yards to the MICH0, TOUCHDOWN, clock 00:00.”
But it certainly defied logic and precedent. And if there’s one aspect of the play that’s guaranteed to suffer in posterity, it’s that fleeting wave of surreality — the feeling that you’re watching a spontaneous, real-life magic trick executed by indifferent cosmic forces with no rhyme or reason or foresight.
Prior to the final play, Michigan (according to ESPN Stats & Info) had a 99.8 percent chance of closing out the win. Even that insurmountable number seems too low. The Wolverines’ triumph was so certain that Michigan State’s equipment staff had already dropped off the Paul Bunyan Trophy in Michigan’s locker room, ceding the spoils of victory for only the second time since being christened the rivalry’s “Little Brother” in 2007. Outside the stadium, a TV reporter from Grand Rapids delivered a complete report, telling viewers that Michigan had won and that the jubilant home crowd was spilling into the streets. Inside the stadium, at least one spectator suffered a heart attack.2 Of the millions who tuned into the ESPN broadcast, presumably a significant percentage of them had either flipped to a different game or (like me) had already tuned the TV out in the final seconds, having turned their gaze to their phones or their friends or their food or whatever happened to be passing by the nearest window until Sean McDonough screamed, “WHOA HE HAS TROUBLE WITH THE SNAP! AND THE BALL IS FREE!”
He was reportedly in stable condition on Saturday night.
As long as the play endures in the collective imagination, no combination of words will convey the experience of watching it unfold in real time more accurately than those four: The ball is free.
When I watch the replay, though — and I’ve been watching it on a more or less continuous loop now for the past 24 hours — I can’t help but feel like it also sums up the limitations of trying to re-create that moment: On tape and in memory, the ball is not free, and never will be again. It will remain on a fixed, predetermined path forever. The poor, doomed punter, Blake O’Neill, will always be poor and doomed; he’ll never catch the ball cleanly, or have the wherewithal to throw himself on it like the live grenade that it is, threatening to blow the emotional state of 100,000 people in Michigan Stadium to kingdom come. Watts-Jackson will never botch the recovery, step out of bounds on the return, or get tackled short of the goal line as the clock expires; he’ll never think better of risking any of those outcomes and shrewdly flop on the loose ball to ensure a field goal attempt to win. (He’ll also never join in the victory lap with his teammates, because he’s badly injured at the bottom of the celebratory scrum in the end zone.) The legions of stunned onlookers will never see it coming. If only the rest of us could hit the erase button for a few seconds and join them back there in collective stupefaction.
Unfortunately for Michigan, the shock of the defeat was only magnified by the context: The loss was the Wolverines’ third straight against their in-state rival and seventh in the past eight years. It also snapped a five-game winning streak in which Michigan looked less like a work in progress under a first-year head coach than a burgeoning juggernaut on the strength of its impenetrable defense; with 27 points, MSU scored nearly twice as many as the Wolverines had allowed in their previous five games combined. And although Michigan still has plenty of opportunity ahead of it over the next six weeks — the Wolverines will be substantial favorites in their next four games ahead of the all-defining date with Ohio State on November 28, when the Big Ten East crown could still be in play — there’s no way to spin that agonizing loss as anything but a colossal disappointment.
The victory that seemed to be so securely in hand would have served as the cornerstone of the Wolverines’ post-Harbaugh resurgence, confirmation of their return to the national conversation after a decade of irrelevance. It was all within their grasp: a top-10 ranking, a clear path to the Big Ten title, and a solid month of deserved playoff buzz were literally seconds away. It was the moment they paid Harbaugh $40 million to deliver, and it had arrived well ahead of schedule, in the giddy crucible of Michigan Stadium. It was the moment they’d been waiting for.
Instead, yet again, the moment belonged to Michigan State, which defied every conceivable odd to remain undefeated and on track for a momentous season of its own. It will always belong to Michigan State, on every anniversary, every YouTube clip, every attempt to capture or convey why college football means so much to so many people. Eventually, Michigan fans’ souls will return to their bodies, the pain will subside, and they’ll be left with a scar they can claim as part of their own story, right next to the one left by Appalachian State. Look at these bad boys: When the moment finally does arrive, who will be able to argue that they haven’t suffered enough to deserve it?
For the rest of us, the play of the year/decade/generation will slowly evolve into a simulacrum, part of the rotation of background noise meant to evoke a memory of a feeling but incapable of replicating the feeling itself. Maybe that sounds cynical. But it’s the inevitable fate of all transcendent moments in sports: not to be preserved in its original, heart-stopping form, but to serve as an enduring billboard to remind us why we watch in the first place.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Breaking news: Leonard Fournette is the best player in college football by an astonishing margin. Not just statistically speaking — although he remains the most productive back in the nation — but on an instinctive, visceral level: Fournette’s combination of size, speed, balance, and wanton violence with the ball in his hands is a marvel to behold each and every week. Against Florida, LSU’s Herculean sophomore turned in his most workmanlike stat line to date, grinding out 180 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 31 carries, all of them hard-charging, straight-ahead bangers between the tackles. Fournette’s longest gain against the Gators covered just 25 yards, breaking a streak of four straight games with a 60-yarder; regardless, he averaged 5.8 per carry and eclipsed 150 all-purpose yards for the eighth consecutive game dating back to last season. He’s everything he was supposed to be.
The same can hardly be said of sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris, whose first two outings against SEC defenses yielded a grand total of 145 yards on 4.7 per attempt in wins over Mississippi State and Auburn. An alarming number of his passes in those two games were screens and shovels that never crossed the line of scrimmage. With each game since, though, Harris is looking more and more capable of taking the Fournette-fueled offense all the way. Last week, Harris connected on 18 of 28 passes for 228 yards (easily a career high) and two touchdowns in a 45-24 win over South Carolina. On Saturday, he was startlingly efficient against the Gators, hitting 13 of 19 attempts for 202 yards and two more scores — the first on a perfectly placed corner route in the red zone, the second on an ad-libbed, 50-yard heave just before the half. Harris’s target on both touchdowns was sophomore Malachi Dupre,3 who also pulled in a 52-yard gain from Harris on a flea-flicker; Fournette plowed in for his second touchdown on the following play. In a game in which his star tailback didn’t break a long run and the defense and special teams combined to give up 28 points to a top-10 opponent, Harris gave the Tigers exactly what they needed to advance to 6-0 and went a long way toward erasing doubts about his capacity to get them through November dates with Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M unscathed.
Frighteningly, all of the Tigers’ headliners are only sophomores.
Of course, given LSU’s old-school, field-position-oriented disposition, the most important stat for Harris remains the goose egg in the interception column: Through six games he’s yet to throw a pick. Surely that’s not sustainable over the next five. But if the last two weeks are any indication, Harris’s improving rapport with Dupre and Travin Dural is a reassuring sign that the Tigers have the firepower to overcome the occasional mistake and/or nine-man box opposite Fournette.
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Derrick Henry doesn’t quite possess Fournette’s vision or every-down ferocity, but for the sheer spectacle of watching a 6-foot-3, 242-pound man-child loping through opposing secondaries, Henry takes a backseat to no one.
Saturday was the Brobdingnagian junior’s best game at Bama, yielding new career highs for carries (32) and yards (236) and further establishing Henry as the undisputed workhorse in a backfield that has tended to rely on a tailback-by-committee approach throughout Nick Saban’s tenure. In terms of raw talent, of course, the Tide’s cup still runneth over: Behind Henry, they boast an established backup, Kenyan Drake, and a pair of five-star freshmen in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough. As the season has unfolded, though, Drake’s production against SEC opponents has dwindled and neither Harris nor Scarbrough has made a case for significant carries outside of garbage time. Drake is coming off a horrific leg injury in 2014 and hasn’t looked 100 percent; he left Saturday’s game early with a thigh bruise. Scarbrough has struggled with injuries and eligibility and earned just two touches, both in a blowout win over Georgia.
That leaves Henry, who was largely overshadowed in his first two years on campus by the departed T.J. Yeldon but now appears to be growing into the spotlight: In four SEC games, he’s set a new career high for carries in all four, scored at least one touchdown in all four, and easily eclipsed 100 yards against A&M, Ole Miss, and Georgia. The Tide have settled on a quarterback, junior Jacob Coker, who’s run hot and cold all year and was lukewarm at best against Texas A&M; they’ve also found a go-to receiver, freshman Calvin Ridley, who’s being groomed as the heir apparent to Amari Cooper. Coker and Ridley hooked up for long touchdowns in the wins over Georgia and Arkansas, sending Ridley over 100 receiving yards in both games. Given the choice, though, Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin seem clearly intent on shifting the focus from the more balanced approach of the past two years back to the run-oriented, ball-control philosophy that’s defined most of Saban’s tenure, and Henry’s game is expanding to fill the demand.
Joe Murphy/Getty Images
There’s a long way to go before anything is decided in the AAC, which still boasts two other ranked, undefeated teams (Houston and Temple) in addition to Memphis, and I’ll have more on the race to represent the mid-major conferences in the major bowl games later this week. For now, let’s just say this: Justin Fuente is about to get paid.
When Fuente arrived in Memphis four years ago, he inherited a team that had won just three games in two years under his predecessor, Larry Porter, at a program with a well-chronicled reputation as a black hole: Including Porter, eight straight Memphis coaches had been given the boot with losing overall records. Last year, Fuente’s third, resulted in a school record for wins (10), a share of the AAC title, and Memphis’s first ranked finish, at no. 25. After Saturday’s upset over Ole Miss, the Tigers are 6-0 for the first time since 1961 and boast the highest AP ranking (18th) in school history. Quarterback Paxton Lynch (384 yards, three TDs vs. the Rebels) isn’t a Heisman candidate, but he’s the clear front-runner to emerge as the under-the-radar gem of a quarterback who leads his historically moribund program to unprecedented heights.
Again, although the natural tendency after a game-changing win like this is to launch the countdown to 12-0, the Tigers still have significant November hurdles to clear at Houston and Temple, plus a home date with Navy. There’s also the inaugural AAC Championship Game, if they make it that far. If any mid-major outfit is equipped to make that run, though, it’s Memphis, if only because of Lynch. And if the next six weeks go according to plan, they’ll double as Fuente’s farewell tour en route to a program that can actually give him the resources to sustain it.
It’s not clear yet that the Hawkeyes are good, necessarily, at least relative to Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan at the top of the Big Ten’s East Division. But it’s also not clear that they need to be anytime soon: With wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern under their belt, the Hawkeyes are indisputably the class of a watered-down West Division, and their remaining schedule — consisting of Maryland, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue, and Nebraska — is about as uninspiring as a major-conference slate can be. Unless the Cornhuskers’ 48-25 win at Minnesota is the beginning of an impending turnaround in Lincoln, Iowa has a straight shot to 12-0. From there, who knows?
Regardless of the schedule, the Hawkeyes are certainly better than anyone imagined in August, including their own fans, who were at the end of their rope with coach Kirk Ferentz. And they’ve done it the way all of Ferentz’s most successful teams have done it, by playing defense (Iowa is 10th nationally in scoring D); establishing the run (three Iowa backs have combined for six 100-yard rushing games, including a 204-yard, four-touchdown effort against Northwestern by third-stringer Akrum Wadley); and winning the turnover battle (Iowa is plus-7 in turnover margin for the season and plus-2 in each of its last three games). It’s still fundamentally boring, as all Ferentz outfits aspire to be. But Iowa fans can live with boring if it gets results, and Saturday’s result — a blowout win over a ranked division rival, on the road — was Iowa’s best in years. However this run ends, it won’t be soon.
Quote of the Week
“All those places have been dark holes where teams disappear.” —TCU coach Gary Patterson, on surviving road trips to Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Iowa State in a four-week span. On Saturday, the Horned Frogs responded to an early 21-14 deficit at ISU by scoring 31 unanswered points to close the game.
Tyler Smith/Getty Images
1. Baylor (6-0). The Bears generated 389 yards passing and 304 rushing against West Virginia, the fifth time this year they’ve eclipsed 300 yards by ground and air in the same game. (Last week: 1)
2. Clemson (6-0). A 34-17 win over Boston College doesn’t look like anything special until you consider that, before Saturday, B.C. had allowed a grand total of two offensive touchdowns in its first six games.4 Clemson scored four, three of them from the arm of Deshaun Watson, who may have a Heisman run in him yet. (Last week: 4)
Florida State and Northern Illinois added touchdowns on defense and special teams, respectively; the Eagles also lost back-to-back games against Duke and Wake Forest despite holding both out of the end zone.
3. LSU (6-0). The winning points against Florida came courtesy of a glorious fake field goal on which Tigers kicker Trent Domingue may or may not have been technically conscious as he crossed the goal line: “I kind of did black out in the middle of it and I’m not really sure what happened after that,” Domingue told reporters, thereby proving once again that there is no speed like terrified-kicker speed. (Last week: 6)
4. Utah (6-0). The Utes could have been a lot sharper in a 34-18 win over Arizona State (Utah actually trailed going into the fourth, 18-14), but the zero in the loss column and the 1.5-game cushion in the Pac-12 South standings speak for themselves. (Last week: 7)
5. TCU (7-0). Trevone Boykin is well ahead of his stellar 2014 pace in terms of both passing yards and touchdowns, entirely as a result of becoming more efficient: Through seven games, Boykin’s pass efficiency rating (180.7) is up nearly 35 points over 2014. Oh, and he’s averaging more yards rushing, too, just to remind us that he can. (Last week: 2)
6. Ohio State (7-0). The Buckeyes turned in their most complete performance of the season in a 38-10 thumping of Penn State, but another successful cameo from J.T. Barrett means the quarterback situation is no closer to a resolution than it was in August. (Last week: 8)
7. Alabama (6-1). Bama returned three interceptions for touchdowns against Texas A&M, ensuring plenty of air time for the Ball Out Belt, introduced in spring practice as part of an emphasis on creating more turnovers. So far, so good: The Tide have more interceptions through seven games (12) than they did in all of 2013 or ’14. (Last week: 9)
8. Stanford (5-1). I watched the Cardinal in their opening-day loss at Northwestern, and I watched them in last Thursday’s annihilation of UCLA, and I still haven’t figured out how those two can possibly be the same team. (Last week: unranked)
9. Florida State (6-0). At Notre Dame, Everett Golson was demoted from the starting job after committing 22 turnovers in 12 games. Through six games at FSU, he has yet to turn the ball over once. (Last week: 10)
10. Notre Dame (6-1). How did it take Notre Dame three years to figure out that C.J. Prosise is a running back? After converting from wide receiver in the offseason, Prosise is averaging 131.7 yards per game on the ground on 7.2 yards per carry, and he just ripped USC for 143 yards and two touchdowns in another reassuring Irish win. (Last week: unranked)
Waiting: Michigan State (7-0) … Florida (6-1) … Texas A&M (5-1) … Oklahoma (5-1) … Michigan (5-2).