Keith Nichol to BJ Cunningham, BT Title Game 2011

Keith Nichol to BJ Cunningham, BT Title Game 2011

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Keith Nichol to BJ Cunningham, BT Title Game 2011

Spartan workhorse’s lateral flip to Cunningham in 2011 Big Ten Championship Game among best plays of the Dantonio Era.

Contact @crowleysullivan

As the Spartans walked off the field in Indianapolis after the 2011 Big Ten Championship battle royale with Wisconsin had come to its gut wrenching close, Spartans everywhere felt like the program might not get another shot.

Mark Dantonio had built his program up from the ashes and, in his fifth season, he had the Spartans on the brink of crashing through to Pasadena.

The Big Ten’s inaugural championship game lived up to the hype by delivering a 15-round super bout that had two heavyweights exchanging mighty blows for four quarters.

None of us will forget that phantom flag after Isaiah Lewis came within a few whiskers of Badgers punter Brad Nortman, negating Keshawn Martin’s return that would have set up the Spartans inside the five yard line trailing 42-39.

Let’s give credit to Nortman for a pretty good flop job – and that’s said with respect.  He sold it, drew the laundry, and assured that the Badgers would play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

What’s too bad is that there were so many other plays from that game that should be remembered no matter what the outcome of the game was.

Keith Nichol’s legacy as a Spartan includes all kinds of contributions that led to the program being in the position it’s in right now.

When Nichol caught the ricocheted ball off of B.J. Cunningham’s face mask and then powered across the goal line to beat Wisconsin earlier that same season, he set an example for all future Spartans.  The determination and strength Nichol showed on that struggle at the goal line showed all future Spartans how important it is to work, work, work in all facets related to committing to Dantonio’s formula.

But Nichol made a play in the 2011 Big Ten Championship that has been somewhat lost due to the fact that the Spartans came up short in the ball game.

With Wisconsin on top 21-14, Michigan State had driven down to the Badgers’ 10-yard line early in the second quarter.

Kirk Cousins found Keith Nichol in the flat and Nichol got hung up by Badgers defensive back Aaron Henry.

It looked like Nichol might be forced out of bounds or taken to the turf and State would face a 2nd and goal from the seven.

Instead, Keith Nichol showed veteran skill and cleverness by noticing B.J. Cunningham springing free just a yard or two behind him – and Nichol alertly flipped the ball laterally right into Cunningham’s hands.

Cunningham finished the play amazingly by taking a few steps and then leaping into the endzone for a score.

At the time of the play, I lost my mind – and I began to envision sitting in the Rose Bowl in Green & White from head to toe.

I immediately considered the incredible journey Nichol made from the time he first joined Michigan State as a blue chip quarterback recruit; how he transferred to Oklahoma only to find himself battling a guy named Sam Bradford; and how he returned to East Lansing, willing and, in fact, eager to do anything to contribute to the buildout of the program.

Here he was making a play for the ages in what was surely going to be the moment when Michigan State returned to the mountaintop.

And the loss meant that the Spartans would need to ratchet up the fight all over again in order to finally get back to that elusive mountaintop.

The hope here is that Keith Nichol knows just how vital of a role he played in making sure the Spartans are recognized as one of the true powers across the college football landscape.

And the hope here is that Keith Nichol knows just how amazing this play was that he made in the clutch – and how it deserves to be recognized as one of the best plays of this entire era…

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