DALLAS -- Four months ago, Jalen Watts-Jackson was a nondescript redshirt freshman coming off an injury and trying to fight for a spot in Michigan State's secondary rotation.
Now, he has a horse named after him. (More on that later.)
"Everywhere he goes he's the GOAT or The Legend," fellow redshirt freshman T.J. Harrell said.
If there was going to be a hero in the final seconds of Michigan State's dramatic win over Michigan, it was supposed to be Harrell. Watts-Jackson's job on the play was to keep the man lined up across from Harrell from getting his hands on the Spartans' gunner on the punt block.
The greatest part of the season's greatest play is that its hero failed to execute his prescribed assignment.
College football is often most beautiful in the chaotic madness that can't be explained. That's been Michigan State's season, defined by the inexplicable. How does a normally reliable punter mishandle a snap? How does his attempt to kick it magically land in Watts-Jackson's hands when he had no idea where the ball was?
How does a national title contender cough up a 12-point lead in less than two minutes to a 5-7 team?
How does any team anywhere ever take 22 plays and more than nine minutes to go 82 yards for a touchdown with a playoff berth at stake? No FBS team has gone on a longer march in two seasons. Why this team? In that situation?
And how does a true freshman shed six tacklers to finish the drive in the end zone, whipping the ball away at the last second from a diving defender he never saw?
On the road to Thursday's playoff semifinal at the Cotton Bowl against Alabama, the Spartans have been conjurers of the preposterous. None was more preposterous than Watts-Jackson's feat, supplanting Auburn's Kick Six as the most breathtaking and miraculous play of the current college football generation.
So, about that horse.
University Hospital in Ann Arbor, staffed mostly by Michigan fans, nursed Watts-Jackson back to health after the game on Saturday and after his Sunday-morning surgery, because of the broken hip he suffered when he scored the winning touchdown.
"Some of them told me, 'You really broke my heart.' But you definitely couldn't tell," Watts-Jackson said. "The nurse I had was a Michigan fan. She treated me like I played for Michigan."
By the time he got back to East Lansing early the next week, a hero's welcome awaited. The first day, a small pile of letters had already arrived. That number would eventually swell to at least 400, not counting the number of emails that flooded Watts-Jackson's inbox, too.
"At first, I didn't think I'd be able to read 'em all, but I had a lot of time off sitting down," he said.
Most were Michigan State alums thanking him, explaining how much his play meant to them. Many promised future prayers for his healing.
One woman explained her plans to name her horse after him.
"Hopefully it's a race horse; it can win some races under my name," he said. "That'd be cool."
The cruelest irony of one of 2015's defining plays is that though Watts-Jackson has now seen the play "at least 500 times," his four family members in attendance missed it live. His dad, uncle, uncle's wife and a family friend were all headed up the aisle, hoping to beat traffic, when they heard The Big House fall silent and a cheer rise from the Michigan State fans.
Before the Michigan win, the Spartans had struggled to beat Purdue and Rutgers, two teams that won a combined two Big Ten games in 2015. Even after the Michigan miracle and a blowout win over bowl-bound Indiana, Spartans players sensed what showed up on a road trip to Nebraska on Nov. 7.
"We really wanted to have that undefeated season, but we didn't have our heads completely on our shoulders," defensive end Shilique Calhoun said.
Co-defensive coordinator Mike Tressel saw tears in Calhoun's eyes as he sauntered off the field, minutes after an embarrassing, heartbreaking loss to the Cornhuskers. He threw an arm around him and tried to encourage his star pass rusher.
"This is the best thing that ever happened to us," Calhoun told him.
Experience provides perspective.
"When Nebraska took that win away from us, it gave us that push, that drive to be like, we don't want this feeling again," Calhoun said. "A lot of the freshmen, they didn't understand the loss. I was here in 2012, when we were losing games and it felt like we couldn't win. That was a great opportunity for everyone to understand that pain and hardship and know we never want to be here again."
Offensive lineman Jack Conklin called the 39-38 upset loss a wake-up call.
After the loss, Mark Dantonio's team didn't hit the snooze button, posting dominant wins over Maryland and Penn State, both sandwiching a road win at Ohio State that ended the Buckeyes' 23-game winning streak. In both the Michigan and Ohio State wins, the Spartans didn't lead until the clock had expired.
They trailed again in the Big Ten title game against Iowa. This time, backed up at their own 18-yard line, the deficit was four with just under 10 minutes to play.
"We knew it was going to be one of our last opportunities to win the game," Conklin said.
It took eight plays to reach midfield, and a 13-yard completion on the first third down from quarterback Connor Cook to Josiah Price would prove the longest play of the drive. Conklin and the offensive line were plenty tired, but they saw the Hawkeyes' hands on their head and hips.
"About halfway through, you could really see the Iowa guys start to wear down, and we said, 'Hey, we're going to do this right here,'" Conklin said. "That's the motivation, the look in those guys eyes that they were tiring from the beating we were putting on them physically."
The Spartans faced a fourth-and-two at the five-yard line with 1:59 to play. During the timeout, co-offensive coordinator Dave Warner radioed down to Dantonio his plan to surprise Iowa with a speed option for Cook, who boasts a robust 233 rushing yards in four seasons.
Dantonio asked his quarterback if he wanted to run the speed option.
"No, I don't think I can," Cook said.
Dantonio moved on, advising Warner to give the ball to freshman L.J. Scott before Cook caught him. He wanted the ball.
"I didn't want to go out there and not get the first down," Cook said, adding it was the only time he'd vetoed a similar play call throughout his career.
Two plays later, it was Scott's turn to play the hero on third down, less than a yard from a ticket to the playoff. The true freshman had faced a similar situation in a rivalry game when he was a nationally touted back in Hubbard, Ohio.
"He probably shouldn't have gotten in," Conklin said. "For a freshman running the ball like that, it's nuts. He really became a man on that play."
Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell hit him first, bouncing him further outside at the three-yard line. Linebacker Ben Niemann fruitlessly failed on an arm tackle from his knees. Linebacker Cole Fisher and cornerback Desmond King wrapped up the 233-pound freshman tailback at the line of scrimmage, but Scott managed to twist his way inside to fight for the final 36 inches.
Defensive back Jordan Lomax tried to yank his shoulder pads backward. Defensive end Melvin Spears dived at the ball, a last-gasp attempt to force a fumble. Scott, emulating a prescient Jedi, lifted the ball above Spears' helmet just before he dove at the it, stretching across the goal line.
"I never saw him," Scott said.
Just like Watts-Jackson, Scott wrote his own chapter of Spartan lore, playing the hero.
"I was sitting on the green table for injuries," Watts-Jackson said. "When he scored, I almost jumped off the table. But I realized, I can't really do that right now. I had to slow it down."
Both can't go far on campus without getting stopped. Scott shrugs off his own fallout, even though he can enter a room without people calling him "The Legend."
"The cool part was getting in the end zone," Scott said.
Michigan State is here, pursuing a national title in a season in which its two rivals dominated preseason headlines. The Buckeyes toted a national title trophy into the preseason conversation. Michigan hired one of the game's best coaches. The Spartans beat them both to take the next step in their attempt to join college football's elite, chasing their first national title since 1966.
The road hasn't been short on drama. More may await as the clock strikes midnight for the new year.