It's still hard to believe the incredible finish that took place on Saturday. That play, whatever it ends up being called, will live on in college football lore forever. While it's almost surely the greatest ending to a Michigan State game in recent memory (and quite possibly ever), it is by no means the only time the Spartans have pulled off a dramatic victory.
Here are what I consider the most memorable finishes in recent Spartan football history. I'm sure there are some from earlier times that I'm missing; feel free to add more in the comments.
- 2008 vs Iowa, 16-13: Iowa passes up a tying FG attempt with 2:30 left to go for it on 4th and 1; Shonn Greene gets stuffed for a loss and MSU holds on.
- 2009 vs Michigan, 26-20 (OT): After MSU gives up a 14-point lead late in regulation, Chris L. Rucker picks off Tate Forcier in the end zone and Larry Caper breaks a 23-yard touchdown run for the win.
- 2010 at Northwestern, 35-27: A fake punt (Mousetrap) sparks a 21-point fourth quarter as MSU comes back from down 24-14 to win.
- 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl vs TCU, 17-16: Dan Conroy hits the game-winning field goal from 47 yards with a minute left.
Now for the main list, in chronological order:
2001 vs Michigan, 26-24: One Last Second
Video (with audio of the Michigan radio crew) can be seen here; embedding is disabled on that video.
The Setup: Down 24-20 with no timeouts, Jeff Smoker scrambled and was tackled at the 1 with 12 seconds left. The Spartans quickly lined up and spiked the ball with the clock showing :01. Michigan fans to this day claim the clock was stopped early, but reviews of the video by several media outlets and Big Ten officials after the fact consistently indicated that about a tenth of a second remained when the ball was spiked.
The Iconic Play: On fourth down, Smoker picked out T.J. Duckett in the endzone for the winning score.
Other Key Moments: The clock would not have even been an issue if not for an officiating screw-up earlier in the drive. When a Michigan sack was negated by a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, the officials marked off the penalty incorrectly and also failed to stop the clock, forcing MSU to waste a timeout that would have avoided the need for a spike on 3rd and goal.
The Stakes: Apart from the obvious rivalry stakes, the game had major postseason implications for both teams. Michigan, entering the game ranked #6, would miss out on the Rose Bowl by one game, and without the win MSU would have finished 5-6 in the regular season and missed out on a bowl entirely.
Drama Level: One play to get one yard in one second. Do it and win; fail and lose. Hard to beat that, though not impossible.
2006 at Northwestern, 41-38: The Record Comeback
The Setup: Michigan State trailed 38-3 just beyond the halfway point of the third quarter, then gradually began chipping away at the lead, cutting it to 38-10 with 22 minutes to go, 38-17 with under 18, and 38-24 with 11 minutes left. Two more Northwestern 3-and-outs led to two more touchdowns, with Drew Stanton finding T.J. Williams to tie the game with a little over three minutes left.
The Iconic Play: Tough call here, but I'll go with the Travis Key interception after the tying touchdown, setting up MSU in range for the winning field goal, which Brett Swenson knocked through with 13 seconds left. The Williams touchdown catch that tied the game could also be the choice here.
Other Key Moments: Kaleb Thornhill's tip-drill interception in the end zone late in the third quarter kept the deficit at 38-17, and Northwestern's next drive ended in a blocked punt returned for a touchdown to cut it to 38-24.
The Stakes: The win saved MSU from the ignominy of a winless conference record, but both MSU and Northwestern finished 4-8.
Drama Level: Some demerits for the key play coming with more than three minutes left, but a late winning field goal is still going to score well here. The slow burn of the comeback finishing with time to spare does bring it down a bit, though. After the field goal, MSU had to survive two Hail Mary attempts after jumping offside on the first.
2008 vs Wisconsin, 25-24: Bielema's Gift
The Setup: Wisconsin's John Clay ran for a 32-yard touchdown with nine minutes left to stake the Badgers to a 24-13 lead. However, a sideline interference penalty on the kickoff return gave MSU good field position, and Bret Bielema compounded that by getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for arguing about it. This led to a quick touchdown drive capped off by a 2-yard Javon Ringer run, but the two-point try failed, leaving MSU down five. The next drive got into the red zone, but a 16-yard sack forced Brett Swenson to attempt a 50-yard field goal to cut the deficit to two with five minutes to go. Wisconsin tried to bleed out the rest of the clock but eventually had to punt with 1:19 left.
The Iconic Play: Having used all of their timeouts to stop the Badgers from running out the clock on the previous drive, MSU quickly reached long field goal range. On 3rd down with 37 seconds left, Brian Hoyer hit B.J. Cunningham over the middle but well short of a first down. With the clock running, MSU had to rush the field goal team out to attempt a 44-yarder. With the field goal team getting set, Bielema inexplicably called timeout. No longer having to worry about scrambling out in a hurry, Swenson nailed the field goal.
Other Key Moments: The final drive might have had to get all the way to the end zone if not for a pair of penalties on Wisconsin's final drive, pushing them back from 3rd and 1 at the 25 all the way to 3rd and 16 at the 40. Faced with fourth down from the 36, the Badgers opted to take a delay of game and punt instead of attempting a 53-yard field goal. Charlie Gantt had a 38-yard catch and run on 3rd and 17 on the touchdown drive that cut the lead to five, and Blair White had two big catches on the winning drive.
The Stakes: The win pushed MSU to 8-2 on the season, and the Spartans went into the final game of conference play with a shot at a Rose Bowl berth (needing to beat Penn State and hope for a Michigan win over Ohio State). Neither happened, and the Spartans faced Georgia in the Citrus Bowl. Wisconsin recovered to win their last three to reach 7-5 and the Champs Sports Bowl.
Drama Level: Taking your first lead of the day with seven seconds left after a fire drill field goal (or what should have been one if not for the inexplicable timeout by Bielema) qualifies as drama. Wisconsin attempted the Stanford Band play on the kickoff and failed miserably.
2010 vs Notre Dame, 34-31 (OT): Little Giants
The Setup: Both teams traded touchdowns throughout regulation, with the game being tied at 7, 14, 21, and 28. In Notre Dame's half of overtime, the Irish were unable to pick up a first down and kicked a 33-yard field goal. MSU's overtime possession started out even less promising, with a third-down sack pushing the Spartans back to the ND 29, where a field goal attempt to tie the game would be from 46 or 47 yards out.
The Iconic Play: It's a fake! Aaron Bates stood up and threw to a wide open Charlie Gantt, who could have walked in for the touchdown and the win.
Other Key Moments: Kyle Rudolph being brought down short of the sticks on third down in Notre Dame's half of overtime forced the Irish to kick a field goal. After the tying touchdown with seven minutes left, the Irish went for it on 4th down at their own 42; Dayne Crist gained enough yardage to pick up the first down but fumbled and MSU recovered. The Spartans were unable to capitalize on the excellent field position, but it did prevent Notre Dame from having any chance to score again in regulation.
The Stakes: The win kept MSU unbeaten in the early going. MSU would end the season with a share of the Big Ten title, but ended up odd man out among the three co-champions, missing out on a BCS bowl and drawing an Alabama team that had no business losing as many games as they did that season. The Irish finished 7-5 in the regular season and drew Miami in the Sun Bowl.
Drama Level: Oh, just a fake field goal in overtime, where failure meant a loss. Not quite as dramatic as '01 Michigan because this wasn't guaranteed to be the last play; a successful fake that didn't reach the end zone would have merely kept the possession alive.
2010 vs Purdue, 35-31: Boiler Blocked
The Setup: Coming in at 9-1 and holding a share of the conference lead, one would not have expected a 4-6 Purdue team to give Michigan State all they could handle and then some. But the Boilers led most of the day, including a 28-13 lead in the fourth quarter. A Chris L. Rucker interception with the Boilers backed up against their own goal line set up a very short field, and Kirk Cousins found B.J. Cunningham to cut the deficit to 8. Purdue's T.J. Barbarette broke a long kickoff return to the MSU 40; the defense forced a three-and-out but Carson Wiggs was able to convert the field goal from 52 yards out to push the lead to 11. MSU's next drive ended with a Cousins pass to Mark Dell for the touchdown and again for the two-point conversion to get within 3 with seven minutes left. The defense then forced another three-and-out by Purdue.
The Iconic Play: Denicos Allen flew in from the defensive right side and smothered the punt. Johnny Adams fell on the ball at the 3 yard line, and on second down Cousins scrambled his way into the end zone for the lead.
Other Key Moments: The Rucker interception that sparked the comeback obviously deserves mention here. Chris Norman intercepted Rob Henry to stop the last-ditch drive by the Boilers.
The Stakes: A loss would have blown MSU's BCS bowl chances entirely, although as it turned out they ended up missing out anyway. For Purdue, it was their fifth consecutive loss and ended any hope of bowl eligibility.
Drama Level: Relatively low, compared to most of the list. The winning score came with more than four minutes to play, and the stop on Purdue's drive came with nearly a minute left and at the edge of the red zone.
2011 vs Wisconsin (regular season), 37-31: Rocket
The Setup: After quickly falling behind 14-0, Michigan State answered with a 31-3 run to take a 14-point lead with 11 minutes to go. Wisconsin would not go quietly, however, and the Badgers tied the game with 1:26 left. The Spartans dodged a bullet when Kirk Cousins fumbled while being sacked, but Dan France fell on the ball after a 10-yard loss. With 2nd and 20 looming, Bret Bielema called timeout in the hopes of forcing a punt and maybe getting one last shot before overtime. Again before 3rd and 8, Bielema called timeout, but Cousins found Keshawn Martin for 11 yards to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, MSU faced 3rd and 1 at the Wisconsin 44 with four seconds left, too far for a field goal.
The Iconic Play: Cousins heaved a pass to the end zone, through the hands of Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, off of B.J. Cunningham's helmet, and out to Keith Nichol, standing a yard outside the end zone. Nichol was hit immediately and initially ruled short of the goal line, but replay showed that he managed to twist the ball over the goal line before being driven back.
Other Key Moments: Trailing 14-9 in the second quarter, MSU blocked a Wisconsin field goal attempt, drove 80 yards capped off by a 4th-and-2 bomb to Cunningham for a 35-yard touchdown, forced a three-and-out while using timeouts, and blocked the ensuing punt for another touchdown to take a 23-14 lead into half.
The Stakes: The win pushed Michigan State into the top 10 for a week before a loss to Nebraska. The teams would meet again in the inaugural Big Ten championship game, where Wisconsin would win in only slightly less dramatic fashion.
Drama Level: Reduced somewhat by the fact that the game was tied coming into the play, such that overtime rather than an immediate loss would be the result of failure. But a Hail Mary with no time on the clock, with the added bonus of a long review to keep everyone in the stadium nervous for a bit longer, is still plenty dramatic.
2011-12 Outback Bowl vs Georgia, 33-30 (3OT): 3OT FG Block
The Setup: The game started inauspiciously, with a screen pass for a safety on MSU's first offensive play. Georgia added an 80-yard touchdown pass and a 92-yard punt return in the final three minutes before halftime to go up 16-0. Le'Veon Bell got the Spartans on the board midway through the third quarter to cut the deficit to 16-8, and Darqueze Dennard added a pick-six to get within two (that two-point try failed). MSU took their first lead of the day at 20-19 on a touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Keith Nichol with 8 minutes to go, but Georgia quickly answered and made the two-point try to go up 27-20. MSU's answering drive ended with an interception, but the defense forced a punt and MSU went 85 yards in ten plays, ending with another Bell touchdown run to force overtime with 19 seconds left. Cousins was intercepted in the first overtime period but Georgia, playing very conservatively, settled for a 42-yard field goal attempt and missed. The teams traded field goals in the second OT, and Dan Conroy added another in the third.
The Iconic Play: After two incomplete passes and a William Gholston sack, Georgia lined up for a 47-yard field goal. Anthony Rashad White blocked the kick, snapping a five-game bowl losing streak for MSU.
Other Key Moments: The initial go-ahead touchdown was set up by a 50-yard completion from Cousins to Brian Linthicum.
The Stakes: MSU's first bowl victory since 2001 capped an 11-win season.
Drama Level: Forcing OT in the final seconds of regulation, surviving an opponent's FG attempt to win and a make-it-or-lose attempt of our own, then blocking the opponent's do-or-die kick? I'd say that qualifies as dramatic.
2012 at Wisconsin, 16-13 (OT): OT in Camp Randall
The Setup: In a season of defensive prowess and offensive ineptitude, it looked like one bust in the second quarter might yet again spell doom for the Spartans. Wisconsin led 7-3 for most of the game, and even a blocked punt couldn't get MSU on the board; after recovering at the Wisconsin 11 yard line, two penalties and a sack pushed MSU all the way back to the 34 and forced a punt. Including that blocked punt, twelve consecutive drives (not counting end-of-half) ended with a punt (nine of them without a first down!) before a fumble by Lawrence Thomas broke that streak and set up Wisconsin with excellent field position with eight minutes left. The defense held up, though, pushing Wisconsin back three yards with the help of a couple of penalties and forcing them to settle for a field goal to extend the lead to 10-3. Finally, MSU's offense sputtered to life, slowly grinding its way down the field.
The Iconic Play: On third and 4 from the 5 yard line with 1:08 left, Andrew Maxwell threw a shovel pass to Le'Veon Bell, who found a clear path to the end zone to tie the game. After holding Wisconsin to a field goal in their half of overtime, the Spartans won when Maxwell hit a well-covered Bennie Fowler in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
Other Key Moments: After the fumble, a downfield holding penalty on Wisconsin negated a big run by James White and pushed Wisconsin back to first and 13. On Wisconsin's first play of overtime, Montee Ball got tackled for a one-yard loss, forcing the Badgers to try to move the ball via Danny O'Brien's arm instead.
The Stakes: This wasn't a banner year for MSU, but the win was the difference between extending the bowl streak and failing to do so. The Badgers finished third in their division but went to the championship game anyway due to both Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible; they demolished Nebraska there en route to a third consecutive Rose Bowl.
Drama Level: An incredibly dull game for most of the afternoon (I've got nothing against good defense, but the offense has to at least look capable of pulling off an occasional win) salvaged by a late touchdown drive and overtime. Minor demerits for no fourth-down do-or-die plays on the tying drive or in OT.
2013-14 Rose Bowl vs Stanford, 24-20: You Shall Not Pass
The Setup: Trailing 17-7 after an attempted screen pass was picked off and run back 40 yards by Stanford's Kevin Anderson, Michigan State answered with a quick touchdown drive, capped by a Connor Cook pass to Trevon Pendleton, to cut the deficit to 3 at halftime. The Spartans took their first lead of the game with 13 minutes remaining on a 25-yard touchdown catch and run by Tony Lippett. Stanford, for reasons known only to their coaching staff, settled for a field goal on 4th and 5 in the red zone with just over four minutes left to cut it to 24-20 (the original play was supposed to be a field goal, but a bad snap forced them to improvise; the Cardinal picked up enough yardage for the first down but a penalty for ineligible receiver downfield pulled them back). They needed a touchdown, and still needed one after kicking the field goal, against a defense who they had been unable to move the ball against for most of the game. Michigan State went three and out, giving Stanford one last chance with three minutes left.
The Iconic Play: Stanford picked up four yards each on first and second down, then Tyler Gaffney was stopped short on third down, setting up fourth and 1. The Cardinal gave the ball to Ryan Hewitt, and Kyler Elsworth, substituting for the suspended Max Bullough, flew over the pile and made the stop to give the Spartans a win in the 100th Rose Bowl.
Other Key Moments: The pre-halftime touchdown drive was sparked by passes of 24 and 37 yards to Lippett and Bennie Fowler. With the game tied at 17 in the third quarter, Stanford went for a fourth and 3 at the MSU 36, but Gaffney was brought down in the backfield to force a turnover on downs.
The Stakes: 100th Rose Bowl. Do I need to say much more?
Drama Level: Relatively low. Anything on this list is plenty dramatic, but the winning score came at the start of the fourth quarter, and even if Stanford had converted the fourth down they still had 65 yards to go and 1:45 to do it.
2014-15 Cotton Bowl vs Baylor, 42-41: The Comeback
The Setup: Down 41-21 entering the fourth quarter, the Spartans cut the deficit to 13 with a Josiah Price touchdown catch with 12 minutes to go. An onside kick gave the Spartans the ball again, but they could not take advantage due to a Connor Cook interception. The defense came up with the stop on fourth down, however, and Michigan State scored again, this time on a Jeremy Langford run, to get within 41-35. Baylor's next drive stalled in MSU territory thanks to an offensive facemask penalty, forcing them to attempt a field goal to push the lead to nine with just over a minute to go.
The Iconic Plays: Can't really limit this one to one play. The field goal attempt from an unusual formation (the kicker and holder being a yard further forward than normal) was blocked, with R.J. Williamson returning the kick into Baylor territory. On the ensuing drive, Cook converted a fourth and 10 with a 17-yard pass to Tony Lippett, then found Keith Mumphery in the end zone on third and goal with 17 seconds left to put the Spartans ahead 42-41.
Other Key Moments: A holding penalty and an Ed Davis sack late in the third quarter pushed Baylor back far enough to miss a field goal that would have extended the lead to 23. Baylor might not have attempted the unorthodox formation on the blocked field goal if they had not been pushed back by a loss of 4 on second down.
The Stakes: After coming up short in two tests against elite offenses (both of whom would win their playoff semifinals later that day), MSU needed a quality win and got it.
Drama Level: A comeback from down 20 in the fourth quarter, surviving two probable game-over field goal attempts and stopping Baylor just short of where another might have been attempted, and the winning points in the final 20 seconds? Yeah, that's drama. Even after the winning score, it was hard to write Baylor off; if any offense can quick-strike in that amount of time, the Bears are the one. But the defense was having none of it - sack, sack, interception, ballgame.
2015 at Michigan, 27-23: Miracle
The Setup: Down 23-21, MSU fails to convert a 4th and 19 with under two minutes to go. With only one timeout, Michigan needs just a first down to secure the win, and even failing that there were 10 seconds left when the Wolverines lined up to punt. A successful punt might run out the clock by itself, and if not the Spartans would have time for only one play from too far away for a direct Hail Mary.
The Iconic Play: Blake O'Neill couldn't handle a low snap, and in the resulting rush to try to get the punt away, he was hit and the ball popped straight to Jalen Watts-Jackson with a convoy of blockers. He ran it back all the way with no time left for one of the most improbable finishes in college football history.
Other Key Moments: After Michigan kicked a field goal to extend their lead to nine with 9:25 to go, Connor Cook hit Trevon Pendleton on a wheel route for 74 yards, initially ruled a touchdown but overturned on review. L.J. Scott took over from there, scoring one play later to cut the deficit to just two.
The Stakes: A rivalry game with major Big Ten championship implications and potentially playoff implications as well. Michigan's playoff hopes are all but gone and they need two MSU losses to have any realistic shot at the division title; MSU is still on track for a clash with Ohio State in the second-to-last week of the season which could decide it all.
Drama Level: Instantly one of the all-time classic endings. You're not beating this for drama.