When they gather around their tailgate grills in East Lansing decades from now, they might look back at Keith Nichol's catch and remember it as Rocket. That was the name of the play Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio called with four seconds left last Saturday night and his Spartans tied at 31 with No. 6 Wisconsin. Or they might refer to it as Hail Sparty, the name that headline writers came up with after Nichol snared a Kirk Cousins pass that had caromed off the face mask of receiver B.J. Cunningham and, with zeros on the clock, carried the ball across the goal line with two Badgers defenders trying to wrestle him to the ground.
What they will all agree on is that Nichol, a fifth-year senior who seemed destined to wind up as yet another hotshot recruit who didn't live up to expectations, not only rewrote his legacy but also put the Spartans in control of the race for a spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game.
The 37--31 win leaves Michigan State 3--0 in conference play and sends it into Saturday's game at Nebraska with a huge mental edge: It'll be facing a Cornhuskers team that lost to Wisconsin by 31 points on Oct. 1. A win in Lincoln would give the Spartans, who beat Michigan on Oct. 15, wins against their two toughest opponents in the Legends Division. And they are a real threat to run the table: After facing Nebraska, State finishes the season with four games against teams that are a combined 2--12 in the Big Ten.
The irony in Nichol's heroics is that in every Hail Mary scenario he dreamed up as a child, he didn't catch the ball. He threw it. Nichol grew up as a quarterback in Lowell, Mich., where he practiced tirelessly (1,000 passes a week for nearly 10 years), using a neighbor's horse barn in cold weather. In 2007 he chose Oklahoma over Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but he was beaten out by future Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. So Nichol transferred to Michigan State, where he was beaten out by Cousins in '09. But Dantonio and his staff didn't want a 6'2" 220-pounder languishing on the bench. Late that season, they suggested he move to receiver, and Nichol agreed.
Nichol caught 22 passes for 262 yards in 2010. Before the Hail Mary, he'd caught 11 for 158 yards in '11. The 12th catch will cement him in Spartans lore. "That's probably how I'll be remembered," Nichol says. "As the quarterback-gone-wide-receiver who won the Wisconsin game."
Gary Nichol watched his son celebrate State's upset with a perfect view of the goal line. As the family cheered, one of the elder Nichol's friends leaned in and suggested the only reason Keith caught the pass was because he "stayed with the play." Gary smiled. "The ball has ended up in his hands because he has stayed the course," Gary says. "He has kept his head high. He has kept a smile on his face. He has kept his heart in the right place."