Wednesday, September 27, 2006

the Spartan Spectacular | by Jay

Sorry for the late report, but I'm back from the road trip. Physically, I've been back since Sunday, but it's taken me a while to process that night's events. I want to memorialize it as best I can, every little detail, from the feeling of utter hopelessness when Michigan State jumped out to a big lead, to the rivulets of rain that turned into a gale in the third quarter, to the almost indescribably intense euphoria that flooded through us when the game was finally over. I found myself saying, over and over, "I don't believe what I just saw!", and it took me a moment to realize I was quoting Jack Buck and his famous call of Kirk Gibson's homerun. No matter -- the monumentality of the moment seemed apt. It was literally unbelievable. The game had everything: hard-nosed running, long touchdown passes, wild swings in momentum, ballsy fourth-down calls, trick plays, improbable tips, hurricane weather, game-saving interceptions, a heroic comeback, and even a fight. In the end, it was the most exciting, delirious sixty minutes of football I've seen in quite some time.

The day started in Chicago. My old roommate Brian, who was riding shotgun, called in a few hours before we were set to leave to give the weather report. "Looks bad, thunderstorms all night," he said, trailing off, letting the idea of scrapping the trip hang in the air like a tantalizing possibility. I could tell he was on the fence, but no way in hell was I driving to East Lansing by myself. "Yep. Better bring a poncho." He laughed, and a few hours later we were racing up I-94, making it to Lansing in time to scrounge a few beers from a tailgater and head inside. Already stormclouds were rolling across the sky, and as we passed the statue of Sparty the MSU band came rumbling down the road, marching through the darkening twilight towards the garish lights of the stadium.

The stands, the fans. It was derogatory and anti-Irish, most of the day & night. This is par for the course for an Irish road trip to a Big 10 venue, where Notre Dame is less of a curious novelty and more a familiar target of deep-seated scorn. We heard it all. We heard from Spartan observers in various stages of inebriation that Charlie has a slight weight problem, Brady is confused about his sexuality, the Irish can feel free to perform anatomically-impossible acrobatics upon themselves. Occasionally an Irish fan would respond and things would get heated but it didn't seem worth it. We were outnumbered in a hostile environment, and everybody in Spartan green was pretty well-liquored, and bad-tempered. That's what you get with a night game against Notre Dame. We kept a low profile when we got to our seats, but frankly, the Irish gave us nothing to cheer about for a long while.

The game began with an Irish three-and-out, and then MSU got the ball and Stanton hit that wide-open touchdown pass down the middle of the field, with a flailing Maurice Crum trying desperately to get back into coverage. The Spartan guys around us were going nuts (there didn't seem to be many women, except for a stumbling, drunken mother of three of who kept going up and down the aisle.) The seats down low at Spartan Stadium are right on top of each other, the aisles barely wide enough to fit two people side-by-side, and with the spray of the weather the whole effect was like being crammed into a WWII landing craft -- but with the enemy's army, not yours. At one point a fight broke out, and an ND fan was led out by the cops.

A few minutes later Zbikowski fumbles a punt, picks it up, runs for a bit, and fumbles it again. Michigan State ball. We are not off to a good start. The Spartans then hit on a trick play, the double-pass from Stanton to Trannon to a wide-open Ringer, and the stands explode again. Ringer had nobody around him for twenty yards, a disturbing, recurring nightmare a la Manningham (and Ginn) running downfield, unnoticed by Irish defenders. John L. Smith seemed like Patton at this point, knowing exactly what to call against our defense (I pictured him saying, "Minter, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!") By the end of the first quarter it was 17-0, and with the noise roaring around me, I mentally curled up into a ball, wanting to dissolve into thin air. Poof, I'm gone, and an empty poncho floats to the ground.

The worst part about it was the feeling that something was deeply wrong with Brady Quinn. He was missing open receivers and throwing behind guys, just like he had versus Michigan. And that just revved up the derision and jeering even more from the hostile Spartan crowd.

In the second quarter we finally put a drive together, and Brady capped it by hitting Rhema on a beautiful fade to the corner. McKnight, by the way, would have a tremendous game, catching two crucial, razor's edge TDs just on the inside of the end zone, and also blocking superbly, springing the Shark for his two touchdowns later in the game.

With about ten minutes to go in the half Stanton runs left, heads out of bounds, and Ndukwe hits him right on the line. Flag -- late hit. We had a really terrible view of what happened next, but with the power of Tivo I have now cranked the film forwards and backwards about fifteen times, Zapruder-style. In short, it is clear to me that Matt Trannon was the instigator of all the foolishness, John-el's protestations notwithstanding. We might address the fallout of Trannongate in a post later on tonight, but I will need to be about six deep before entering the insanity that is JLS's world. Stay tuned. (Ed. note: followup on this has since been posted below.)

In any case, the offsetting flags ultimately didn't matter, as a minute later Brady Quinn was picked off and MSU returned it to the house, making the score 24-7. In terms of aesthetic awfulness, it was the worst interception for Quinn since SirDarean Adams' pick for a score last year at ND. Actually, maybe it is Quinn's worst. He simply threw it to a defensive end (a defensive end?), Ervin Baldwin, who had dropped into coverage, without even looking, really. Unreal. (Although we didn't know it yet, this was the last boneheaded mistake Brady Quinn would make all game.)

ND got the ball back, got a first down, then stalled out and faced 4th and 1 on our own 37. Timeout Irish. Yep, we're going for it. Ho-lee crap. Travis Thomas checks into the game, and we go I-formation, two tight ends. It's a play-action to the decoy Thomas, the Spartan defenders collapse into the line and-- holy smokes, Carlson is wide open, coming right at us! Come on Brady, find him. Brady makes a terrific fake, hiding the ball on his hip, and tosses a lob to 89 for a twenty-seven yard gain and a huge fourth-down conversion. My gosh. Say what you want about Charlie Weis, but he has brass ones the size of boulders. Quinn finishes the drive with a swing pass to Samardzija in the slot, who scampers into the end zone with some help from Rhema's blocking. It's 24-14. Things are looking a little better.

Well, until the ensuing kickoff, that is. Somebody (Ray Herring?) was offsides, and what should have been MSU ball at the 12 is now a re-kick, with the Spartans returning this one out to about the 40. (Charlie on the sidelines: "Give me a f---ing BREAK!") And what happens? Stanton drives right down and scores, hitting Kerry Reed on a photo negative of the Samardzija swing pass. Every time we try to stand up, Sparty kicks out our legs. It's 31-14 at the half.

Craig James on the ABC halftime show said that "ND was in over its head", and had I heard him say it, I wouldn't have disagreed. "And I'm telling you," crowed James, "we all got fooled by that Irish drinking water that they were really good coming into the season!" My friend Matt called. "Well, there's still a chance," I said, but I didn't really believe it. Quinn had been kooky, and our tacklers seemed to be bouncing off of Ringer and Caulcrick instead of wrapping them up. This would be the first of about a dozen moments during the rest of the game where I simply cashed it in, resigning myself to a loss. "It's over," I would think to myself, and Brian would just shake his head. It was over.

A kernel of truth arrived via text message from my wife.

"We need more points!"
I chuckled. That cut right to the essence of the issue, didn't it? Spoken like a true Theology PhD. A dispassionate statement on its face, but that exclamation point seemed to indicate...hope? No way. It was definitely over. Wasn't it? We stood around in the drizzle, sort of dazed and dejected. I got a Diet Coke. Brian didn't get anything.

We opened up the second half by stopping MSU on a three-and-out, got the ball back, and after a first down, we had 2nd and 7 on our own 38 when Brady hits Carlson over the middle and he goes 62 yards for a score. Quinn read the blitz beautifully, and checked out of whatever he was going to run to exploit the middle of the field, left empty by the blitzing linebacker and the cornerback that Samardzija dragged out to the flat. It's back to a ten-point game, 31-21, and what a great way to start the second half. We follow it up by forcing another MSU three-and-out, and the Spartan punter shanks it, and we get the ball on their 41. Great field position. But then the rain showed up.

Rain? It was a monsoon, actually; a driving, swirling downpour. We had driven through it on the way to Lansing, and when we got into our seats there was a drizzly mist coming down. The folks next to us were ND fans from Fort Wayne. "If this is all we're going to get, hell, it's not so bad," they exclaimed. We chuckled. "Oh, don't worry, it's coming." It finally showed up. I had a pretty good poncho that did the job, but the rain scoffed at Brian's "waterproof" pullover, so he ended up buying one of those five-dollar trashbags, a white plastic thing with green Spartans on it. He turned it inside out. We were in the 12th row behind the ND band, and when the rain came, all the water from the upper rows came rushing down the aisles and under the stands, and everybody down low had to stand on the bleachers. There was a river rushing below us, six or eight inches deep. We could have kayaked onto the field.

The weather and the big MSU lead made for an interesting chess match during the second half. When the rain showed up, Michigan State went heavy and started pounding the ball, running it four times in a row. On the last run, big Jehuu Caulcrick finds a seam inside and goes thirty yards for a touchdown. He killed us all day. State fumbles the slick ball on the extra point, so it's a 16-point lead. I have the hood of my poncho cinched around my face against the wind and the rain, and when Brady fumbles the snap, jumps on it, and two plays later fumbles it again, I can barely see it. The ball is a greased pig, running wild through the mud.

Finally, at the end of the hard-fought third quarter, daylight breaks in the form of a Zibby punt return. Again, he drops the ball on the fly, but picks it up and darts upfield, shaking tackles and veering into the promised land. For the first time all game, the Spartan crowd is getting quiet, and ND fans are finding their voices. We love Tommy Z. And...shit. There's a flag up around the 40. It's coming back. The ref starts walking it off...and walking...and walking...all the way back to the seven? It seems that the call was a block in the back on McNeil, right around where Zibby fielded the punt, and the flag was thrown not by the two linesmen right next to him (who have the best view, and keep their flags in their pockets), but by the head referee, forty yards upfield. If you have the game saved, check it out -- you can actually see Zibby run past the flag laying on the ground, nowhere near the spot of the infraction. Anyway, it's marked on the seven, and our drive stalls out just as the quarter ends. We're showing some grit so far in the second half, but fate seems to be conspiring against a big comeback.

As is the weather. I know it was mentioned on television, but you almost had to be there to believe it: the wind actually shifted 180 degrees against the Irish when they started going the other way in the fourth quarter. It's true. Picture this flag to the right, when the clock hits :00, swinging completely around and pointing the opposite direction. I couldn't believe it. I started yelling and shaking my fist at the hurricanoes, just like Lear. I was mad, in both senses of the word.

A flurry of holding calls on the Spartans backed them up from excellent field position into punting territory, and we took over with about 10 minutes to go in the game on our 20. On first down Quinn fires a bullet to David Grimes, who tips it with both hands like a volleyball setter, sending the ball up and back and into the waiting arms of John Carlson, ten yards down the field. It is Immaculate Deflection II, and it gives us a first down. We are amazed. Three plays later, Quinn hits Samardzija on an inside slant, and the Shark makes a nifty outside move, galloping forty yards for the score. We go for two. Weis calls a sweep left behind three tight ends, but Walker is taken down at the two. It's 37-27 with eight minutes to go. We are feeling it.

The chess match continues. On this next MSU drive, Minter sends in three linebackers (we'd been playing nickel for most of the game), featuring Anthony Vernaglia who will rush and blitz on almost every down. Michigan State is sticking with the run, and on a quarterback keeper Ndukwe rips the ball from Stanton's hands and pounces on it. It's a pure effort play by Nedu, one of two game-changing turnovers in the second half. Outside the south end of the stadium there is a surreal sight: fireworks start going off. It is as if someone hit the switch for the victory celebration too soon, and after a few bursts, they stop.

Quinn takes over and fires the ball downfield, where Samardzija is tackled by two Spartan defenders, and sits up laughing. Pass interference. Amazingly, the Spartan crowd around us boos this call, and for the first time in the game Brian and I start jawing back at them. Quinn hits Samardzija again, and then throws a fade to Rhema, who touches a foot inside the end zone just as he's making the catch. Touchdown. It is 37-33. Just as we're celebrating, Gioia shanks the extra point. Oh, crap. Instead of hitting a field goal to tie it, now we need a touchdown. Nothing is easy in this game.

Okay. 4:40 to play. We are focused. MSU gets the ball, and Stanton tries an option right. More chess: we lined up with three linebackers again, but both the outside guys move up just before the snap, giving us six guys on the line. I don't think Stanton ever saw them (looking at the replay, you can tell he's got his eyes forward, looking downfield.) When Stanton sprints right, Thomas, unblocked, is simply waiting for him, and drops him for a loss.

On the next play it gets crazier. We rush two linebackers up the gut, and drop Laws and Landri into middle coverage. It is a perfect call. Crum zooms up the middle unblocked, right into Stanton's face. Stanton, panicked, tries to complete a pass over the middle to Trannon, who has three guys around him. It is not on target. Terrail Lambert puts a paw on the ball and hauls it in for an interception, darting around the side and cutting back to the middle for an Irish touchdown. Irish fans explode. The band goes nuts. Samardzija, coming onto the field to hold for the extra point, whispers something nasty to Drew Stanton. I am jumping up and down and nearly kill myself falling off the bleachers. It is crazy. It is impossible. It is 40-37, and the Irish have the lead. Spartan Stadium is absolutely stunned.

The final minutes are a terrifying blur. We kick off, and Stanton takes over with about two minutes left and only one timeout (they burned two of them earlier in the game unnecessarily, when there was confusion in the Spartan huddle). On the second play, Abiamiri breaks free on a Stanton rollout and it looks like he's about to take him down, when Stanton launches it and Zbikowski picks it off. Whistle. It's coming back; Abiamiri grabbed his facemask. State converts on third down, on a pass and catch to Trannon, amazingly, his first reception of the game. Given the way this game has gone, Brian and I are convinced we are going to overtime. A couple more plays, and Landri tackles Stanton on a third-and-five keeper. Michigan State takes their last timeout on 4th and one. (We couldn't see it at the time, but it was then that Charlie delivered an impassioned speech to the defense, shown here in all its glory.) Stanton, the warhorse who never quits, converts it on a run left.

Ball is set, clock winds down, Stanton drops back, avoids a sack, and throws downfield to the right. It looked like it was tipped. There is a whistle. There is no call yet. The Irish players are lobbying for an interception, the sideline judge takes a moment...

...and suddenly, miraculously, joyously, he signals...Irish ball. It is the most improbable play in an improbable game, the ball traveling like the magic bullet, going off of Richardson's foot and ricocheting off Lambert and then teetering on the Spartan player's back, whereupon Lambert scooped it up and rolled over, cradling the ball -- and the Irish victory -- in his arms. We did it. We won.

POSTGAME. Euphoria. I have never been in an environment like that. The MSU fans around us cleared out, like water receding after a storm, revealing the Irish faithful standing proudly in the northwest end zone. The band played. The players jaunted over, helmets aloft, jumping up and down. And smiling. They looked so happy, so relieved, like a huge weight had been lifted from their shoulders. (Somewhere across the way, a few Spartans were protecting their 50-yard line from a nonexistent ND flag planting, but nobody really noticed). This was a comeback not just within this game, but a comeback that had been brewing for a good solid week, after the humiliating defeat to Michigan. I said last week that this team could go two ways after the Michigan debacle, and redemption is so much sweeter.

(For a video of the final few minutes of the game, including the postgame celebration, click here.)

After the game we hiked through the muddy fields and parking lots and bellied up to the bar at the Roadhouse Grill on the northwest side of campus. It was late, and the bar was smoky and crowded. Four guys put down about six pitchers and a round of shots, and we stayed to the bitter end, clapping high fives with random Irish fans and commiserating with some dejected, but friendly Spartans (we'd been there last year, after all.) We ended up at an IHOP on Grand River at three-thirty in the morning, still shaking our heads and marvelling at the game. Brian said to me at the end of the night: "I'm glad you didn't let me bail out of going. I would have hated myself."

Lord knows, this team isn't perfect, and there is a time for diagnosis and identifying problems. For the coaches, it started early Sunday morning. For the players, it was at team meetings starting on Sunday afternoon.

Me, I'm still celebrating. It's Wednesday afternoon, and I'm still in Spartan Stadium, the glare of the stadium lights illuminating the fine mist falling onto the field, and the glistening helmets pumping up and down, and the band playing (over and over, even staying past the Spartan band's exit), and players throwing gloves and wristbands into the crowd, and Sam Young doing a jig with the Irish guard, and Charlie doing this, and we few, we happy few, cheering and waving and soaking it all in. I'll be there for a while.

(That's me in the blue, and Brian in the white.)