Saturday's kickoff will be, down to the minute, exactly 6 years after the one that started the 2001 Michigan-Michigan State game, better known to me and my friends as The Clock Game. No single game rankles more than this this one; not the Notre Dame Phantom Touchdown, not the I Hate The Sun Belt Alamo Bowl fiasco. The only one that comes close is the 1990 Desmond In The Endzone No-Call, but that was 17 years ago and even that pain eventually dulls. This one was special, just a total mess at the end. Officials, players, nobody did anything right.
I woke up early that morning and got on the trumpet bus to East Lansing. It was my first away game with the band, and I didn't know what to expect. Mostly sleeping until we got to East Lansing, then a lot of waiting in traffic. We headed right for the stadium and got ready to disembark in full uniform. On the artificial turf, we did a full rehearsal of our show for the week (A classical show with music from Fantasia – Sorceror's Apprentice, Pines of Rome, Rhapsody In Blue, Berceuse – Finale) and pre-game, then sat around with a boxed lunch. The Jumbotron and PA system were already up and running, vamping through a few segments. One of them had Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" as its backing track, and it played so many times that I went from liking the song to tolerating it to wanting to murder Timbaland with my bare hands.
Finally it was time for pregame. We were probably booed loudly, but I didn't hear anything but the drums and the rest of the band until we were back on the sidelines watching the Spartan Marching Band do that weird hitch thing they have in their entrance. Some doofus with foam muscles came out, and this was somehow inspiring to the Spartan faithful.
On the opening drive, we finally had MSU stopped at 4th and 11 on our 32 and they sent out the punting unit for an Incredibly Surprising Fake Punt. On the ensuing play, Charles Rogers drew a flag for pass interference that we all agreed was complete and total crap (Note: I've never seen a tape of this game). Two plays later, obviously it's Rogers catching a TD.
Michigan moved the ball on its first drive, but stalled out in the zone where I thought we'd be seeing a pooch punt. Instead, Hayden Epstein came on to kick a monster 57-yard field goal.
Taking a break from the action on the field, there is something walking up and down the sidelines calling itself "Willie Wolverine". Nobody knows what's up with this thing. It's a full-body wolverine costume outfitted in pads and a football uniform that looks somewhat unlicensed. The head looks like it might be papier mache. Is this a try-out for a new official mascot? Did someone make it himself? Is it a Spartan plant? I heard later that it was just some guy in a homemade costume who talked his way onto the field (nice security, MSU), but I don't know whether that's true.
Meanwhile, MSU marched back up the field on us, but the defense managed to hold them to a 51-yard Dave Rayner field goal try, which missed. Navarre led off the drive back the other way with a 22-yard pass to Marquis Walker. BJ Askew carried most of the load the for another 31 yards on 6 carries until Navarre again found Walker, this time in the endzone on a 14-yard pass to give us a 10-7 lead.
The Spartans answered with a solid kick return and a 63-yard, 10-play drive. TJ Duckett and Dawan Moss carried the load, gaining 41 on the ground and Duckett scoring on a two-yard TD run. But the key play was a 3rd down on the Michigan 13 where Charles Rogers again drew a PI call on a Michigan defender. I remember this one as marginally less fraudulent, but it was another penalty giving Michigan State extra chances to score.
The Spartans pinned us deep in our own territory to start the next drive, kicking a touchback. But Walker and Navarre hit a big pass of 38 yards to move us across the 50 and connected again on a 32-yard TD pass. The half ended with Michigan staking a somewhat surprising 17-14 lead, given the way Duckett was running.
The halftime show was one of the best of my career in the MMB. I just remember being really nervous, but hitting my marks and knowing the music cold. "Rhapsody In Blue" featured a big, fast follow-the-leader section that we'd worked on a lot. "Berceuse & Finale" was majestic. We were met with mostly indifference, which is as good as you can expect up there.
We got the ball to open the second half, but didn't do anything with it. MSU came pounding down the field the other way. They made it all the way to the 9, and then it looked like TJ Duckett scored the go-ahead TD. Except for the flag on the field. Holding. On the repeated 3rd down, Shantee Orr came in and sacked Smoker for a 7-yard loss. Dave Rayner missed his second field goal of the day, a 44-yard attempt.
But Evil Navarre had come out of the locker room for the second half, and the rest of the offense wasn't making up for him. Near the end of the 3rd quarter, Navarre threw a pick near midfield that Duron Bryan returned to our 38. Duckett carried the ball on all six ensuing plays, but MSU had to settle for a 27-yard Rayner chip-shot FG to tie the game.
Evil Navarre wasn't yet finished with us. He threw another pick to Bryan, this time well inside our own territory. Bryan returned this one to the 29, and things were looking bad, but the defense rose up. I didn't realize how bad it was at the time, but Smoker was getting absolutely hammered all day by the pass rush. He was sacked for the tenth (10th!) time as the Spartan drive went backwards out of FG range.
The offense couldn't get any traction, and Michigan State kept moving the ball on a defense that must have been a little tired by now, and the pass rush couldn't crush everything. Smoker hooked up with Rogers for 29 yards, and Duckett had a 27-yard run on another Spartan drive that went deep into Michigan territory, but again they had to settle for a FG from Rayner, this time from 26 yards out.
But eventually that pass rush had to come up with something, and Smoker finally put the football on the ground. Grant Bowman picked it up at the MSU 38, giving Navarre and Co. a short field to work with. There were only two significant plays on the drive, but Calvin Bell took a reverse for 21 yards to move us a lot closer. Then, on 3rd and 13, we went 5-wide and Jermaine Gonzales hauled in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Navarre to put us up 24-20 with 4:44 left to play. It was completely insane, and it worked. Marquise Walker probably had about 7 guys on him, because nobody else was catching anything all day, but our backup QB was open for one huge reception.
We almost gave it all back immediately. Herb Haygood took the kickoff and ran it out to midfield. But the defense was good enough to force a punt, which Marquise Walker was dumb enough to field inside our own 5 instead of hoping for the touchback. He made it to the 7. We of course ran it into the line three times, if memory serves, and punted it away with 2:28 left. Epstein did his best, but MSU came up with it on our 44.
Immediately Smoker was sacked again by Shantee Orr. Another two incompletions, and it was 4th and 16. The pass fell incomplete. But Jeremy LeSueuer had committed an obvious and blindingly stupid illegal hands to the face penalty, giving MSU a fresh set of downs. MSU then converted another 3rd down pass to save their drive.
Michigan responded with another huge sack of Smoker with 0:36 left in the ballgame. But then a flag came in for illegal participation.
On the field, I assumed that we'd just been dumb enough to play with 12 men and I was furious about that. But look at the video. I only count 11 at first, just like Brandstatter. If you let it go a little bit, there's a guy way in the backfield that could either be a Michigan player or a ref, it's too grainy for me to tell. I'd like to rip them a new one, but it might be legit. At any rate, we had to play on. LeSueuer broke up a 3rd down pass in the endzone, but Duckett reeled in the 4th down try to give State a first down on our 3. Smoker successfully executed the spike and we called a timeout.
On the next play, Smoker rolled the pocket right, then pulled down the football and ran. I thought I felt the earth open up under me. I saw the hole and I saw the game end and...then Marlin Jackson and Jon Shaw tackled him. I didn't know if it was in time, I kept looking for the officials to signal a touchdown, but it never came. There were 7 seconds left on the clock and MSU was frantically trying to get lined up for the spike. 4...3...2...1...0. WE WIN! Wait. Where's zero? Where the hell is zero? That clock should've run out, there is no way that clock didn't run out. That ball did NOT hit the ground with any time left in the game. This is BULLSHIT. Oh, Jesus. They have one more play. Christ, we're going to lose. Smoker drops back, Duckett's waving his arms around, wide open, I can see an egregious uncalled hold on Larry Stevens from 90 YARDS AWAY and where is the damn flag this time? but there goes the football and Duckett has it. This is such bullshit. Robert Flagg, of Carol City, FL, recognizable by his gold-plated grill, comes over to spit at our band.
We're supposed to play a postgame concert with the SMB, but we're hustled out of there before there's a chance for an incident. Jeering awaits us on the other side of the tunnel, but we make it back to their band hall without any real trouble. Most of the SMB members adopt the attitude of "This was completely sketchy, but you will pry this win from our cold, dead fingers," which isn't too galling to take. We got back on our buses and headed back to Ann Arbor, filled with a hate that would linger.
In 2002 we won 49-3 and Bobby Williams was fired.