EAST LANSING - They're coached to focus on reads, motions, shifts, routes, coverage assignments, technique, and block out the crowd noise, the boos, the score, and just make plays.
Forget that it's Senior Day, your last time in green and white in your stadium, and forget that the hopes of a Big Ten title, and maybe even Pasadena, are sinking through the hour glass.
Forget all of that, when the opposing quarterback makes a mistake and lofts an errant pass to a small acreage of the Earth where only you can do something about it. With 70,000 cold, cranky fans watching, and millions more on television, making a play that 12-year-olds across the country will make in their back yards thousands of times over this very weekend, you get just one chance, this last chance, after last year's failure, to alter your legacy, and perhaps the legacy of the entire 103-man, 2010 Michigan State football team. That's all. And it all went through Chris L. Rucker's mind in a flash.
"Last year, I had the ball by myself. It was in the air and I dropped it," Rucker said.
That was at Notre Dame, with Michigan State nursing a late lead. Notre Dame's quarterback made a mistake and sent a deep pass into Rucker's area. No one was near Rucker when he dropped the easiest chance he would ever have at an interception.
The easiest chance he would ever have ... until this one.
With Michigan State trailing 28-13, blowing a chance for a shot at the Big Ten title, and 12:40 remaining, Purdue's Rob Henry made the mistake of the game when he sent a rainbow of luck - good or bad, it was up to Rucker to decide - down the left sideline, high into the air like a punt. It was very similar to the bad throw at Notre Dame stadium last year, which led to Rucker's most famous play to this point, the drop against the Irish, which served as the poster moment for last year's 6-7 coulda, woulda, shoulda season.
"But this year, in the same situation, this year I came down with it," Rucker said.
He hauled it in at the Purdue 40-yard line and returned it 20 yards, setting off an explosion of belief on the Spartan sideline.
"Rucker's interception definitely put light into our eyes," said senior linebacker Jon Misch. "It was at a point when everybody was saying we need to make a turnover right now. Once it happened it was like, 'Okay, this is possible.'"
"The emotion was crazy," said defensive tackle Jerel Worthy "Everybody was feeding off each other."
What was Henry thinking?
"It's my fault," Purdue's quarterback said after the game. "I was trying to throw it away."
That's why it looked like a punt. Henry thought he had put enough air and distance under the pass to sail it out of bounds. But fate, the football Gods, or something, brought it toward Rucker.
"I just remember seeing a broken route," Rucker said. "We were in cover-three, so I was in my deep third, and I was looking at the quarterback and I saw the quarterback throw it deep. I saw the receiver keep running, and I looked and there was no receiver around. So I was like, 'This is my chance to get a turnover and change the momentum of the game.'"
What about a chance for all that other stuff? Senior Day? Big Ten title? Redemption? Yeah, Rucker admits all of that flashed before his eyes as well.
"The ones you have time to think about are the hardest balls to catch," Rucker said. "The ball was kind of wobbly and I wasn't really expecting it, so it was definitely in the air for a while. Having all that time to think about it, it was, it was hard. It was very nerve-wracking.
"When the ball was in the air, the only thing I thought of was Notre Dame. I was like, 'I can't let what happened last year happen this year,' especially at this point in the game.
"So I just focused on it and caught it, came down on it and tried to return it as far as I could. It set up the offense in good field position and we went in and scored. It ended up being a big turning point in the game."
From that point on, Michigan State would outscore Purdue 15-3, and penetrate the Boilermaker end zone four times (only three of which counted, due to a questionable interpretation of a replay).
From that point on, Kirk Cousins would go 6-of-9 for 74 yards, with 2 TDs, a 2-point conversion completion. One of the incompletions was a well-thrown, 37-yard deep ball to B.J. Cunningham. He caught the ball in the end zone, simultaneously with a Purdue defender. The two fell to the ground and Cunningham seized control as they rolled. Then after a roll, and unquestioned possession, the Purdue defender raked the ball out of Cunningham's hands. The pass was ruled incomplete. Mark Dantonio challenged the called. The replay officials took less than a minute to again rule that it was incomplete. Players and coaches were outraged.
But on the very next snap, Cousins went right back to Cunningham for 28 yards on a seam route, and the comeback march was back at full steam again.
"If you watch our sidelines, it got electric there in the fourth quarter," Dantnio said. "It got electric after C.L. Rucker's interception; that is when it started. It is just like anything, sometimes things start to roll and it gets hard to stop."
Two plays later, Cousins hooked up with Mark Dell on a 9-yard TD pass. Then again on a 2-point conversion to cut the lead to 31-28.
Then came Denicos Allen's blocked punt.
"The ball died on the 3-yard line," Dantonio said, "which was critical, instead of going out of the end zone (for a safety)."
The charmed season continued.
Two plays later, Cousins - with a sprained ankle, a sprained shoulder, and unknown amounts of pain-killing novocaine - dove head-first, pain-be-damned, over the goal line for a touchdown. Cousins was hit on the play and fumbled into the end zone, after he crossed the plane. But even if the officials had screwed up this call, Joel Foreman was there to recover in the end zone. The charmed season continued.
"Kirk is fearless," Cunningham said. "I know he was really hurt, by the way he was limping. When he was down (with an injury) the second time, he was like, 'You guys, I'm going to keep playing, no matter what. I'm not going to go out until I can't play anymore.' And then he scored like that at the end. I don't know too many guys that would dive into the end zone like that when they're hurt."
Cousins said he did it for the seniors.
Rucker appreciated it.
"I knew this was going to be my last game at Spartan Stadium and it got real emotional," Rucker said. "It is something I will never forget."
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