Believe it or not, Mark Dantonio actually thought his guys had a chance.
Yes, even with Michigan State down 23-21 with 10 seconds to go – and with Michigan set to punt the ball deep into Spartan territory – Dantonio felt it wasn’t over.
And it wasn’t.
“They were very confident going out there,” Dantonio said of his special teams on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “I just said, ‘Hey, let’s go after it. We’ll see what happens.’ Just trying to stay focused on the moment, really as much as anything. But no, it’s a long shot for sure, but crazy things happen in college football.”
They sure did Saturday. Jalen Watts-Jackson grabbed a muffed punt in midair and took it 38 yards to the house for the game-winning score as time expired to send No. 7 Michigan State (7-0) into euphoria and to send No. 15 Michigan (5-2) into stunned despair.
Dantonio has been on both sides of the final-play coin, but he had never been a part of what we saw in Ann Arbor this past weekend.
“Never one quite like this with 10 seconds to go,” Dantonio said. “But there’s a lot going through your mind at both ends of the spectrum there. We sent 11, we didn’t have a guy back and it just happened. There was a timeout, so there was 20 seconds to get things set up and then we got it set up and there was 10 seconds on the clock. So it all went very fast. It sort of gets replayed over and over and it slows down in your mind, but at the point in time, it’s happening very fast for you.”
The Spartans have now won their two toughest games of the season – against then-No. 7 Oregon and at No. 12 Michigan – but have looked a little sloppy in between, beating Purdue and Rutgers by a combined 10 points.
“I think you look across the board and you can see that from everybody in the top 10,” Dantonio said. “I think there’s great parity in college football, there’s a lot of great coaching, very innovative coaching going on and everybody’s got players. Everybody’s got a shot. So you see people rise up every single week and knock somebody off. But the bottom line with us is we’re 7-0, we won our 60th game in the last five-and-a-half years. Connor Cook is 30-3 as a starting quarterback here. I think we’ve won 35 out of the last 38 games or something like that. We’re successful. We have a culture here. We got chemistry and energy and we sort of feed off each other. We just play to the end of the whistle, and we’re going to play to that last play. Good things will happen. We’re prepared to win. As much as anything, we expect to win.”
Of course, it helps having Connor Cook under center. The senior threw for 328 yards and a touchdown against Michigan and has led the Spartans to victory in 17 of their last 18 games, including 11 straight.
And yet, Sparty was an eight-point dog at Michigan. Eight points? Really?
“We just focus on the moment, to be honest with you,” Dantonio said, unconcerned with point spreads. “I’m more concerned about how we react to things and (whether) we reach our peak as a team at game time. If we do that and we do our job, usually things take care of itself. I knew we’d come to play. I don’t worry about the things I can’t control . . . and then we go. Our players have confidence in themselves and we find a way to win.”
While Cook will be in the lineup against Indiana this Saturday, Watts-Jackson will not be. He fractured his hip on the fumble return and had season-ending surgery on Sunday.
Watts-Jackson will be missed the rest of the way, but it’s safe to say he left his mark on this season.
“Great job running with the football,” Dantonio said. “He was right on top of it.”