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No matter Outback outcome, Spartans will share moment forever

TAMPA - Upon further review … it's still a miracle. Regardless of what happens in the Outback Bowl, when the story of Michigan State's 2011 football season is written, it must begin with Oct. 22. "I never heard Spartan Stadium erupt like that,'' Michigan State senior wide receiver Keith Nichol said. Michigan State (10-3) had plenty of other memorable moments. The Spartans hope an exclamation point will be applied against the Georgia Bulldogs (10-3) in Monday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
But there won't be anything like the play that's called "Rocket.'' Michigan State was tied with Wisconsin, 31-31, in a riveting, back-and-forth prime-time game. Overtime seemed certain. From the Badgers' 44-yard line, Kirk Cousins' desperation pass was brushed by a Wisconsin defender near the goal line and it deflected off the facemask of Spartans receiver B.J. Cunningham. The ball popped up and Nichol grabbed it, dragging defenders with him near the end-zone's plane. Officials ruled that Nichol was down at the 1-yard line. It went to a review in the replay booth. "When the ref took the headset off and ran back on the field, it was like my heart had stopped,'' Nichol said. "I was trying to read his lips. Then I just heard this incredible roar.'' Touchdown! "People called it luck, but Keith was in the right place and his determination made that touchdown happen,'' Cousins said. "It was hard to calm down after that happened. It was electrifying.'' The Cousins-to-Nichol play was instantly compared to the elite final plays in college football history, such as the bizarre Stanford band fiasco in 1982 and Doug Flutie's "Hail Mary'' pass against Miami in 1984. "It took me a while to understand that,'' Nichol said. "They were saying Doug Flutie, Kordell Stewart (who threw a final play touchdown pass to beat Michigan in 1994) … and no way am I in their class. But I guess I understand now. People are going to talk about this play for a long, long time.'' Cunningham said he only remembers the ball hitting his facemask awkwardly. Initially, he didn't know Nichol made the catch. "I thought I was responsible for messing it up,'' Cunningham said. "I was hurting. It took me a while to absorb what had happened. After that, it was like a complete natural high. I think it was destiny for Keith Nichol to make that catch.'' Nichol was a highly recruited quarterback who initially signed with Oklahoma. After transferring to Michigan State, he competed against Cousins for the starting job in 2009. Cousins was chosen and Nichol shifted to receiver. "The coaches were concerned about whoever became the backup, how would they respond?'' Cousins said. "The way Keith handled switching positions and relating to me, he has shown so much character, so much security and so much unselfishness. "He has strengthened our team as opposed to dividing our team. He deserves more credit for that than he has been given. That means far more than any catch he has made.'' Although the catch he made on the night of Oct. 22 was a big one. "Sometimes, I wonder why I was put in position to make that play,'' Nichol said. "I mean, you dream about moments like that. And as a football player, you feel like you're just doing what you're expected to do. "But I keep hearing stories of what people were doing when they saw the catch, how much it meant to them. That's the really special part. I might've been the one who made the catch, but that moment is going to be shared by Spartans everywhere.'' Forever.


Georgia (10-3) vs. Michigan St. (10-3) at Raymond James Stadium

Monday: 1 p.m. TV: ABC, Ch. 28

jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353

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