Last year, football fans witnessed the Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games. For the first time in years, both teams were ranked, revved up, and ready to go.
The Spartans moved the ball much better than the Wolverines, but still trailed Michigan until the last play of the game.
How was that possible?
Because Michigan’s fantastic punter, an Australian named Blake O’Neill, was having the game of his life, pinning the Spartans deep in their own end, time and again.
With 10 seconds left, Michigan held a 23-21 lead, and needed only to punt the ball downfield to win.
And that set up one of the strangest plays in the history of college football.
O’Neill dropped the snap, picked up the ball, then tried to kick it, but inadvertently knocked it into the hands of Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran into the endzone to seal the craziest victory in Big Ten history.
A minute later, Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh had to stand in the middle of the locker room, and address his team. There could be no script for what he would say.
“It’s kind of a fluke,” he told them. “But that’s football. These things happen, and that’s why you play the full 60 minutes. This will put steel in our spines.”
Months later, Michigan tight end Jake Butt – no, I’m not making that up -- told me the memory of that moment still chokes him up, especially the way Harbaugh looked them in the eyes when he said it.
He had them.
When Harbaugh finished, he found O’Neill to make sure he was okay.
O’Neill asked him, in his Aussie accent, “Do you think I’ll take some flak for this?”
Harbaugh couldn’t help but grin, and reply with his own Australian accent.
“Yeah, mate, I think you’re gonna take some flak for this. But you’ll be okay. Don’t listen to it. All will be well.”
O’Neill figured if they could joke about it, it couldn’t be that bad.
From that moment, Harbaugh told me, he had one goal: to make sure his team handled that loss better than any team ever could, and emerge more unified and determined than before the game.
But getting back on the winning track would be no small trick.
Historically, the team that loses the Michigan-Michigan State game goes into a tailspin. This is why coaches always warn each other, “Never let ‘em beat you twice.”
In other words, don’t spend so much time agonizing over a tough loss that you fail to prepare for the next game, and lose again.
That was Michigan’s challenge. Instead of basking in a long-awaited win over their rival, a likely top ten ranking, and a shot at a national title, they had to spend the following week trying not to think of the last game.
“We didn’t dwell on it,” Butt said, “but we all wanted to get out there! We wanted to make someone pay!”
They came from behind to beat Minnesota, then did it again two weeks later against Indiana. In fact, since Michigan’s loss to Michigan State a year ago, the Wolverines have won 12 games, and lost just one.
You’d have to say Harbaugh was right: That bizarre loss to Michigan State put steel in their spines, and prepared them for revenge this weekend.
Whether or not they get it, against a struggling Spartan team just as eager to salvage their season, is impossible to predict.
But then, so was last year’s game.