Before catch, Nichol had to find his niche

EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP)—After all these years, Keith Nichol finally ended
up in the right place at the right time.

The Michigan State wide receiver was in the middle of perhaps most memorable
play of the season so far, catching a last-ditch heave off a carom for the
winning touchdown in a 37-31 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday night. It was an
unlikely way to win a game, but then again, not much about Nichol’s career has
gone according to plan.

“I’ve always just kind of gone with what was asked of me,” Nichol said.
“I’ve felt like I had to earn every single thing that I have. I’m glad that the
hard work paid off and that we were able to win a game like that.”

Nichol was a high school star at quarterback in Lowell, about 60 miles west
of East Lansing. He was set to go to Michigan State when coach John L. Smith was
fired at the end of the 2006 season. Suddenly, Nichol had a decision to make,
with Oklahoma offering him another option.

“Coach (Bob) Stoops flies to my house the day after they win a Big 12
championship game,” Nichol said. “I was a 17-year-old kid. I was like, `OK,
there’s some security in that. Michigan State doesn’t have a coach right now.”’

The Spartans hired Mark Dantonio, and Nichol joined the Sooners, but his
stay at Oklahoma was a short one. Sam Bradford emerged as the top quarterback
there, and Nichol threw all of seven passes as a freshman. The travel was tough
for his family, and Nichol transferred back to his home state to play for the
Spartans.

But there was a catch. By 2009, Kirk Cousins was coming into his own at
Michigan State. He and Nichol split time at quarterback that season, with
Cousins the starter. When the Spartans went to the Alamo Bowl shorthanded amid a
slew of suspensions, Nichol started at wide receiver and caught a couple passes.

“He’s a great wide receiver—catches the ball very well. Obviously he can
throw it and run it as a quarterback,” Dantonio said. “I think he’s the model
for our football team in terms of sacrifice and commitment and trust for our
program. He’s done a tremendous job.”

By last season, the conversion was in full swing. In the opening game,
Nichol caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Cousins. He finished the season with
22 receptions.

“I couldn’t have done it,” Cousins said. “It says a lot about his hard
work, his work ethic, his attention to detail, his passion for this game. It
says a lot about him as a person.”

As a receiver, Nichol is still a role player, playing a bit under the radar
while teammates B.J. Cunningham and Keshawn Martin make more big plays. Nichol
is tied for fourth on the team this season with 12 catches.

But no one is likely to forget his most recent one.

With the game tied at 31 and 4 seconds left, Cousins rolled out to his right
and threw about as far as he could. Nichol wasn’t all that concerned with the
ball at first. His job was to position himself down the field, not far from
Cunningham, and be ready for a tipped ball.

So Nichol went where he was told—and found himself in the perfect spot at
last.

The ball bounced off Cunningham, right into Nichol’s arms.

“I saw the ball come down and kind of bounce up,” Nichol said. “As soon
as it went up in the air, I said, `This is mine, and we just won the game as
long as I can put my hands on it and catch it.”’

Nichol was actually just outside the end zone when he secured the ball, but
he was able to fight through tacklers, barely reaching the goal line to win the
game. Now he’s a minor celebrity in the East Lansing area, drawing double takes
on campus and other unusual gestures.

“My family’s getting flowers sent to their house,” Nichol said. “My
friends told me to get a Twitter, so I joined that world now. I don’t even know
what’s going on there.”

The ninth-ranked Spartans are in the middle of an exciting October. They’ve
already beaten Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin this month, and this weekend
they play at 13th-ranked Nebraska in a game that could have major division title
implications in the Big Ten.

Now in his final season of eligibility, Nichol has earned the respect of his
team—and for one night at least, he had the attention of a nation’s worth of
college football fans.

“I’m so happy for him and the way Saturday night ended up—with the ball
in his hands,” said Cousins, another senior. “But I think he’s got plenty of
good plays left in him these last several games of our careers. It’s going to be
fun to watch him down the stretch here. I think there’s more to be seen.”

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