We’ve all heard of the Hail Mary, but how about Psalm 91? That was the prayer Matt Coghlin leaned on for the final play of Michigan State’s 27-24 shocker over Penn State.
But the best part was that he had no idea what it was.
Still, whatever that crumpled up piece of paper that Coghlin shoved in his pocket said, it worked. As time expired, Michigan State was one field goal away from upsetting the No. 7 team in the nation. 34 yards later, Coghlin had just drilled the biggest kick of his young career.
“I was just thinking about trusting myself,” said Coghlin at the post game press conference. “You know, I’ve done the kick a million times.”
Coghlin grinned like a kid on Christmas. Was it the best game of his life? He was hesitant to answer, pointing to a high school game-winner against St. Xavier in Ohio. But he still couldn’t contain his excitement. The moment hadn’t quite sunk in yet, and the long-term effect of this game is still unknown. But people were already drawing the Michael Geiger comparisons. Some reporters even asked Coghlin if he had a “windmill” celebration dance lined up.
But a belly slide across the soaking wet turf was sufficient. When asked how far he slid, he promised to “check it out.”
But Coghlin had to wait a long time before getting his chance to make MSU history. In fact, he waited seven hours and three minutes to do it.
A record-breaking weather delay forced Michigan State and Penn State back into the locker rooms by mid-second quarter. Three and a half hours of waiting drove most of the fans out of Spartan Stadium. But for the players, it was just a matter of waiting.
“I saw a guy coming out of the shower,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said of the delay. “He [said]‘got to be fresh, coach…’ I think the biggest thing was let everyone relax and then we got our energy going again.”
Both Michigan State and Penn State used the delay as a chance to rest and eat some food. The Nittany Lions ordered Chick-fil-A. But for the Spartans, it was a childhood favorite, peanut butter and jelly and orange slices.
Coghlin waited out the delay wondering if he would get a chance to kick a single field goal. After all, his last two attempts didn’t go so well. With 6:04 remaining in the fourth quarter against Northwestern two weeks ago, Coghlin tried a 32-yarder, but hit the upright for the second time of the day.
He couldn’t do that again if he tried.
The Spartans proceeded to squander the game in triple overtime. After that nightmare, Coghlin probably wanted nothing more than to swoop into Spartan Stadium and put last week’s ugliness behind him. But all he could do was play the waiting game.
Finally the delay ended and action resumed. The game roared on; Coghlin would have his first chance to redeem himself at 10:02 in the fourth quarter. The setting was not unlike the one in Evanston. It was the fourth quarter in a close contest from 32 yards out—the exact same distance. But this time, Coghlin nailed it.
“I already pretty much forgot about it,” said Coghlin referring to the Northwestern game. “I just go week to week. A new start to a fresh week.”
But one kick wasn’t enough. With time expiring, Coghlin would have to attempt another, and this one was for it all. Four seconds lingered with 34 yards on the horizon.
After the game, Dantonio recalled a 2010 tale when the Spartans were set to play Penn State with a Big Ten Title on the line. He questioned his team about Psalm 91, but only Kirk Cousins knew it. Seven years later, Dantonio found a prayer card inscribed with a portion of Psalm 91, carrying it around until Coghlin’s game-winning attempt. His last words to Coghlin were soothing ones.
“I didn’t say anything about missing,” said Dantonio. “I said ‘don’t worry about it. No stress. Kick the ball through.’”
Dantonio handed the card to Coghlin, who put it away before reading it. The next thing Coghlin knew, he drilled the game-winning field goal and the Spartans pulled off the upset. It took seven hours to win their seventh game over the seventh-ranked team. And ironically, 777 is considered a holy number in the Christian faith.
Coghlin celebrated with his brothers, took part in a quick on-field interview and rushed back to the locker room. Finally, Coghlin could read the prayer card. As he glanced through it, one phrase jumped out.
“Trample the great lion.”