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Spartans comfortable running game-winning Hail Mary play

by | CBSSports.com College Football Insider
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EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The football hung in the air for maybe four or five seconds Saturday night. Usually that's not a great deal of time, but sometimes it's just long enough for a prayer to be answered every now and then.

"We work on it every Thursday," Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins said. "We work on it over and over and over."

The trajectory on the football -- Cousins' 31st and final pass of the night -- was a perfect rainbow. Don't they always seem to be in these situations when there is no time remaining? Whether it's in the backyard playing with childhood buddies or inside Spartan Stadium before 76,405 fans.

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Cousin threw the football 55 yards. Gathering in and near the north end zone were 11 players -- seven from Wisconsin, only four from Michigan State.

"Ultimately you're just trying to put it in the end zone," Cousins said. "Buy time for the guys to get down there. I tried to buy as much time as I could then I felt like I needed to let it go."

Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who was inserted into the game for the final play, leapt into the air to knock down the ball, but mistimed his jump. He barely tipped it, deflecting it into the facemask of Michigan State wide receiver B.J. Cunningham, who stood in the end zone.

"It bounced right off my facemask," Cunningham said. "If I don't catch it and it bounces, that's how we practice it. Somebody has to be in front to scoop it and if it gets tipped back, someone has to be in the back."

The ball ricocheted into the hands of MSU's Keith Nichol. A former quarterback who was moved to wide receiver so he might get some playing time, Nichol caught the ball just outside the end zone. He was immediately grabbed by cornerback Antonio Fenelus and linebacker Mike Taylor as he tried to cross the goal line.

The officials said Nichol never made it. He was maybe an inch shy. But Nichol knew better. He hadn't gone through five years of hell. Five years of practicing and busting his butt at two schools -- he transferred from Oklahoma in 2008 -- to end up an inch short of completing one of the greatest finishes in college football history.

"There was no way I didn't get in," Nichol said. "I knew I got in. I was not going to be denied."

The replay officials agreed. Touchdown. No. 15-ranked Michigan State 37, No. 4 Wisconsin 31. As far as regular-season finishes, I'd rank this one behind only Stanford and Cal's "the band is on the field" and Hail Flutie.

Michigan State's miracle? "That one's called 'The Rocket Play, baby,' " Cunningham told me.

Before 11:28 p.m. Saturday, Nichol had all of 35 career receptions and one touchdown at Michigan State. His game-winning catch was his only catch of the night.

"That play kind of summed up the entire game," Nichol said. "Who was going to make the last play, make the final play to change the game? It came down to one play at the end. We were thankful to be on that part at the end."

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said when his club practices the Rocket Play or the Rocket Series each Thursday in practice, it's without any defenders.

"Usually when nobody's covering us, we're pretty good," he joked. "We usually practice it on air, which means no defenders there and we tip it around and come up with it. It's the first time I think that I've been involved in one of these in 30 years of coaching when at the end of the game, with no time left that you win the game.

"That usually doesn't happen."

Neither does Wisconsin, the nation's No. 4 team, blowing an early 14-point lead.

In rolling to a 6-0 record, the Badgers had bulldozed through their first six opponents, a collection of schools where playing defense was an option. Of Wisconsin's five FBS opponents, four had defenses that ranked this week among the 30 worst pass efficiency defenses in the nation.

Michigan State, meanwhile, entered Saturday's game ranked No. 1 in pass efficiency defense and No. 2 in total defense.

And the difference was enormous -- well, after Wisconsin raced out to a 14-0 lead. The Badgers took the game's opening drive and covered 80 yards in 11 plays, in a drive that featured only one third-down conversion.

Michigan State's Edwin Baker promptly fumbled on the Spartans' first play from scrimmage at their 30. Three plays later, the Badgers made it 14-0 and the rout -- it seemed -- was on.

The Spartans looked like they were headed toward another pummeling, similar to last season's 49-7 loss to Alabama in the Capital One Bowl.

Early in the second quarter, however, the game flipped on one play. From its 2-yard line, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson was pressured by Michigan State's Denicos Allen and Jerel Worthy into an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone.

It only gave Michigan State two measly points for the safety, but it meant much, much more. It sparked Sparty's offense. After the free kick, Michigan State went 72 yards in four plays, capped by Keshawn Martin's 34-yard touchdown on a reverse.

"The safety propelled us forward," Dantonio said.

Wisconsin's next possessions resulted in a blocked field goal and a blocked punt, Michigan State recovered for a touchdown, and before the Badgers blinked, they were down 23-14 at the half.

In its first six games, Wisconsin had never allowed more than 17 points to an opponent. Yet the Badgers allowed 23 points in less than 13 minutes to Michigan State.

Besides dousing the Big Ten's national title hopes, the loss also all but eliminated any realistic chance of Wilson winning the Heisman Trophy.

Wilson, who was pretty much perfect through the first six games, proved to be human. Besides his intentional grounding penalty that keyed Michigan State's comeback, he also threw two interceptions -- he only had one on 128 attempts before Saturday -- and fumbled out of bounds on a third-down, third quarter scramble.

Wilson entered the game leading the nation in passing efficiency. He finished 14 of 21 for 223 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also carried eight times for 30 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown run that helped the Badgers pull even at 31 after trailing 31-17 in the fourth quarter.

"I've never been a part of something like that," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said.

Neither has Nichol. He was interviewed afterward by Erin Andrews and the Michigan State fans chanted "Keith, Keith." I'm sure Nichol will never pay for a meal in East Lansing for as long as he lives.

After Nichol and the Spartans finally left the field and about 15 minutes after "The Rocket Play, baby," the stadium -- minus the few thousand Wisconsin fans -- was still full.

No one in green and white had left. They wanted to stay and soak it all in. But before they left the public address announcer had one last thing to say.

"A reminder," he said, "the final play was a 44-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol."

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