One moment lost in analysis of Jalen Watts-Jackson’s Ranger Rescue was he benefitted from Michigan offensive lineman Ben Braden doing his job.
If that sounds incongruous, it should. It helps explain how Michigan State’s inexplicable game-winning touchdown unfolded with a 10 seconds remaining Saturday for a 27-23 win that silenced the Michigan Stadium crowd into stunned disbelief.
The botched punt began with Braden, a starting offensive guard, lined up among three blockers as the secondary wall in front of punter Blake O’Neill. The ball was snapped low — the first mistake in a chain of miscues detailed below.
Braden likely didn’t realize the disaster taking place behind him as he properly rolled to the right side of the Michigan offensive line to pick up the onrushing Watts-Jackson. His block shoved Michigan State’s redshirt freshman backup safety outside and away from threatening O’Neill. But as fate played out, it also perfectly positioned him to catch O’Neill’s sideways punt.
Now, before Michigan fans blame Braden and shift their disturbing Twitter vitriol from O’Neill, remember that in a sport with an oblong ball, doing your job can backfire. That’s especially true when one or more your 10 teammates don’t do their job. And that’s what happened on the Ranger Rescue.
Football is the most complicated team sport with 11 players required to work in unison. That goes for executing offensive plays that find holes and defensive formations designed to plug holes in the line or cover gaps in the secondary.
That’s why coaches always preach, “DO YOUR JOB!”
It seems an easy enough mantra, but sometimes guys are tempted to do their job and the job of someone next to them. A couple of Michigan blockers didn’t do their job; they rushed up field with a chip block to cover a punt – one that never made it out of the backfield.
With the exception of Braden, there was plenty of blame to go around.
— First mistake: Michigan failed to adjust to the Spartans’ Rangers formation, an all-out rush with no one stationed deep for the punt. Michigan had only five blockers in the box lined up against 10 rushing defenders (one Spartan was aligned wide in front of a Michigan gunner).
Michigan’s formation was five linemen in the box, two speedy players lined up wide as gunners, three linemen seven yards behind the trenches to form a secondary wall and the punter as the 11th player.
— Second mistake: Scott Sypniewski snapped the ball low.
— Third mistake: O’Neill dropped the ball and stepped forward to pick it up.
— Fourth mistake: O’Nell, an Australian with few American football instincts, tried to kick the ball instead of falling on it. His Australian style is roll to his right as he kicks. But his decision to kick the ball allowed true freshman safety Grayson Miller and redshirt freshman safety Matt Morrisey time to penetrate. They hit O’Neill in the back with his body angled sideways as he punted.
Miller came from the right outside of Michigan State’s line and Morrisey up the middle. The momentum of their hit propelled O’Neill’s punt sideways toward at the 38-yard line – exactly where Watts-Jackson was positioned following Braden’s shove/block. Watts-Jackson pulled in the ball while already taking his first step to the end zone.
At this point, two Michigan players reacted properly and might have saved the day if not for Michigan State backup cornerback Jermaine Edmondson also reacting correctly. With Watts-Jackson running to the end zone, Michigan backup cornerback Wayne Lyons retreated to position himself for a tackle at the 7-yard line. But he was met by Edmondson, whose escort block pushed Lyons backward and prevented him from making contact to slow down Watts-Jackson. Edmonson wisely kept his hands in view to prevent a flag thrown for holding.
If Lyons had slowed Watts-Jackson, Michigan tight end Jake Butt, who was in desperate pursuit, might have caught up in time to hit Watts-Jackson. By the time Butt attempted a diving tackle from behind, Watts-Jackson had reached the 2-yard line. Watts-Jackson was already lunging across the goal line.
There are innumerable ways to analyze the play. But it all comes down to the oddity of a game with an oblong ball negating the fact that Ben Braden did his job. Adding to the absurdity of the play, Watts-Jackson suffered a dislocated hip and had to be carted off the field. The doctors that performed the surgery said the injury was from the tackle, although teammates piled on him in celebration.
Football is a funny game. You know that if you’re Jalen Watts-Jackson. Or it’s a bitter pill if you’re Ben Braden.