Reliving "Rocket" - A Great Definition of Spartan Pride

Reliving "Rocket" - A Great Definition of Spartan Pride

Columnists

Reliving "Rocket" - A Great Definition of Spartan Pride

The 2018 Spartan football season continues to close in on us.  Kickoff is merely 44 days away.  And one of the most legendary – and important – victories in the history of the Spartan program was a 44-yard touchdown heave that nobody will ever forget.

Contact @crowleysullivan

Where were you when Kirk Cousins heaved his “Hail Mary” pass high into the Spartan Stadium night on the final play of regulation against Wisconsin on Saturday, October 22nd, 2011?

Every person in this amazing video – with amazing audio – can probably give you more precise details about this night and this moment than the memories of their weddings, their children being born, and their high school prom nights –

All Spartans remember the incredible turn of events that occurred at the end of an absolutely delirious night in front of what was one of the most raucous throngs to ever rock Spartan Stadium to its core.

Even if the night hadn’t ended on this earth-shaking moment, it would have been remembered as a titanic clash between two programs that had, at the time, developed a very intense rivalry predicated on trying to establish themselves as giants on the national stage.

The Badgers had already been to Pasadena a handful of times and returned to Madison with trophies and roses clenched in their teeth – and the program was now trying to bust into that final upper echelon of college football’s elite.

Mark Dantonio’s program was really starting to find its footing, coming off a somewhat surprising Big Ten Championship season – but would the Spartans have the staying power and could they go toe-to-toe with the conference’s heavyweights on an annual basis?

Huge, emotional wins over UMAA and Ohio State preceded what was ESPN’s prime time game of the week and the sense was that this game would determine more than the winner of a single game.

The game produced electric moments all night long – but only after Michigan State managed to wake up after falling into a deep 14-0 hole before anyone had really even settled into Spartan Stadium.

But, the #15 Spartans sparked themselves and the raging, lubed up Beast Lansing crowd with defense, creative play calling, and special teams.

As the second quarter started, the Badgers were maintaining that 14-0 lead when the Spartan defense forced star quarterback Russell Wilson into an intentional grounding call in his own endzone and Michigan State was on the board with a safety.

Moments later, Keshawn Martin took a double-reverse handoff 34 yards directly into the student section for pay dirt, making it 14-9 and turning Spartan Stadium into a nuthouse in the process.

It would remain a nuthouse until after midnight.

The Badgers moved the ball deep into Spartan Stadium on their ensuing possession and looked like they were going to pound the ball in behind Badger wrecking ball, Montee Ball.

But the Spartan defense stiffened behind Kyler Elsworth’s important 3rd down stop and when the Badgers lined up for a 30-yard field goal attempt, it didn’t surprise anyone in Green to see the defense smother the Badgers and block the kick.

Kirk Cousins – who was brilliant all night – led Michigan State on a clutch drive right after the blocked kick and when he found BJ Cunningham over the middle on a 4th and 2 from the Badgers 35-yard line, Cunningham broke a tackle, found the endzone to give State its first lead of the night at 16-14, and the only place crazier than Spartan Stadium in those moments was Nicholson’s Cuckoo’s Nest.

With 1:20 left in the first half, the Spartans weren’t done.

Denicos Allen highlighted a defensive stop and the Badgers lined up to punt from deep inside their own territory.

And, led by Spartan legend Kyler Elsworth, State blocked the crap out of the kick.

As Elsworth was swarmed by his teammates following the Spartans’ recovery of the block in the endzone and State added to its lead, Badgers’ head coach Bret Bielema looked like a guy who just had his banana split stolen as he headed to the locker room.

After Wisconsin bolted out to a 14-0 lead and made it look like it was going to be a gloomy night along the banks of the Red Cedar, the Spartans exploded for 23 unanswered points and went into the locker room at the half with a 23-14 lead – and the real fireworks were still to come.

Early in the 4th quarter, Cousins found Keshawn on a huge 3rd and 11 and when Martin scampered away into the endzone and the Spartans converted the 2-point conversion, State appeared to be in control, 31-17.

But Russell Wilson was set to explode with his own fireworks show.

Wilson peformed magic tricks that started with a 22-yard tuck-and-dash for the endzone with 8:10 left in the game and that drew the Badgers to within a touchdown at 31-24.

And with just over a minute left to play in the game, Wilson finished off a magical drive with a what went down as a 2-yard touchdown dump-off to Montee Ball and the game was knotted at 31.

It’s hard to remember now but in 2011, Mark Dantonio had yet to fully exorcise all of the Green & White demons that kept all Spartans awake at night for so many years.  And when the Badgers tied up the game at 31 with just about a minute to play, Spartans would be lying if they said this was not going through their minds: “Crap. I’m gonna walk out of here absolutely ruined and heartbroken AGAIN when the Spartans find a way to let this game slip away…”

But the Spartan Nation was about the see, hear, and feel that the door to yesteryear was about to be slammed shut, once and for all.

Like Ali-Frazier or Hagler-Hearns, these two teams exchanged blows all night long and with a minute to play, the stage was set for what would go down as one of the most improbable finishes in Spartan history – at least until Jalen Watts-Jackson decided to contribute to Spartan history a few years later…

Cousins performed his own surgical magic on what would be the game-winning drive by finding Le’Veon Bell and then Keshawn Martin for key first down conversions and, all of a sudden, State had the ball near midfield.

And there was a sense that something was on the verge of happening.

We all remember everything about Rocket.

The way Cousins rolled out to his right to get room and time to make the heave.

The way the ball sailed through the East Lansing night for what seemed like an eternity.

The way that everyone saw the ball coming down and how it actually started to look like the ball might find one of what appeared to be about 37 Spartans perfectly positioned at the gaol line.

The way the heave from Cousins literally hit BJ Cunningham right, smack in the face mask and ricocheted back towards the goal line.

The way – in that millisecond of the ricochet off of Cunningham’s face mask – everyone thought, “OH MY GOD – THE PASS WAS PERFECT – HE SHOULD HAVE CAUGHT IT – BUT, OH MY GOD, IT’S SORT OF BOUNCING AROUND DOWN THERE AND – OH MY GOD – DID KEITH NICHOL JUST CATCH IT?????????”

The answer was, of course, yes.

Keith Nichol caught the ricochet.

And then it was all about strength, determination, power, and, yes, Spartan Pride.

Spartan Pride is a hard thing for any of us to really define.

All Spartans have it.

But how does it get quantified.

In the years since this miraculous yet 100% earned victory, I’ve often pointed to this specific moment when I’ve wanted to SHOW what Spartan Pride is.

Keith Nichol – the highly touted high school quarterback who had dreams of becoming a star as a Spartan quarterback; the guy who was led to transferring to Oklahoma due to what he thought was a challenging path at the quarterback position at Michigan State; the guy who had the misfortune to find himself behind a guy named Sam Bradford at Oklahoma and decided to go back to his original school; the guy who Mark Dantonio welcomed back into the program with open arms; the guy who spent endless hours working so hard in the weight room to strengthen himself for what would be a new path consisting of playing receiver while contributing as a quarterback here and there; the guy who demonstrated his appreciation for the opportunities afforded him by Michigan State and Coach D by coming up with huge plays on a consistent basis; the guy who didn’t show a shred of bitterness or disappointment towards Kirk Cousins who beat him out a few years prior; and the guy who now had the football after it bounced off of BJ Cunningham’s face mask – wasn’t going to be denied.

The struggle that ensued should be on a never-ending loop of video being played in the Spartan weight room.

If a Spartan is wondering if he should do one more set of reps or if he should add just a little more weight for the next round or if he should keep going with his workout and not take a break, that Spartan should watch Keith Nichol show what Spartan Pride is.

Nichol outworked the Badgers through sheer determination and strength.

And when the official made his now never-to-be-forgotten announcement after the play was reviewed, Spartans all over the country lost their minds.

The victory was yet another massive moment for this football program not merely because of the win itself but, rather, for the way it stomped out and rid Spartan Stadium of more demons that had caused so many moments of disappointment over the decades.

It’s why fans’ spectacular videos like this one will be treated like materials that belong in the Smithsonian –

It’s why students’ videos like this one will forever be so fun and hilarious to watch as we relive this incredible moment over and over again –

Kirk Cousins and Russell Wilson put on a show for the ages, providing fans with a sneak peek at what each star would soon be doing in the NFL.

Cousins finished the night 22 for 31 for 290 yards and three touchdowns.

Wilson had a good night statistically (14 for 21 for 223 yards and two touchdowns) but the stats didn’t properly represent just how amazing he was on the field that night – and fans have since come to learn that Wilson manages to excel even when the stats may not suggest dominance.

Another key component to the night’s magic: after the Spartans’ destruction of UMAA the previous week, Michigan State was being criticized by some for the penalties that State was called for in the brutal game against UMAA.

Will Gholston was suspended for the Wisconsin game for a scuffle he was drawn into by UMAA’s Taylor Lewan.

It says right here that everyone knows what Lewan said to Gholston and Gholston deserves credit for only doing this to Lewan immediately after Lewan said what he said –

And, with all eyes on the Spartans, Michigan State finished the night of the game against the Badgers with a grand total of zero penalties.

The Badgers got back at Michigan State later that season with a payback victory in an equally scintillating game played in the Big Ten Championship.  The loss was a gut wrenching heartbreaker for the Spartans it seemed, at the time, that the final hurdle – the Rose Bowl – would elude Dantonio’s program.

But, we now know that the 2011 season was just another giant step for the Spartan program that now has earned the right to tout itself as a college football superpower.

And the final, miraculous, and magical finish from the night of October 22nd, 2011 gives Spartans a piece of history as this moment will live on as one of the greatest finishes to a college football game, let alone one of the greatest finishes to a game played on a magical night along the banks of the Red Cedar…

Latest

More SpartansWire
Home