By RICKY LINDSAY, Editor-in-Chief
Blake O’Neill wowed fans early in Michigan’s rivalry game against Michigan State with an 80-yard punt.
Michigan led Michigan State 23-21 with 10 seconds remaining and faced fourth-and-two from the Spartans’ 47-yard line. The obvious call was to pin the Spartans deep on a punt and watch the clock drain. But it wasn’t that easy.
O’Neill bobbled the snap on the punt, attempted to recover and re-kick as a vicious Michigan State defense stampeded towards him like a bull. The Spartans jarred the ball loose from a helpless O’Neill and scooped it up for a 38-yard, game-winning touchdown.
“After bobbling it, (O’Neill) still thought he could still get the ball kicked,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said at his post-game press conference. “It was a mistake; a mistake was made.”
Harbaugh’s right — it was a mistake. O’Neill is human; everyone makes mistakes. But there’s absolutely no reason for him to receive hate for the 27-23 loss.
It’s inhumane that Michigan fans would turn on their own so quickly. O’Neill has been playing for the Wolverines for two months now. This is the Aussie import’s first impression of how the fan base reacts when things sour.
And it’s unnecessary that things soured so much, so quickly, that interim athletic director Jim Hackett had to issue an open letter denouncing it.
“Today I awake to the shocking reality that our community who care so much about this program would send hurtful, spiteful and vicious comments to one of our students,” Hackett said in his letter Sunday. “To be clear, such comments come from a small minority, none of whom are reflective of our institution.
“The program I know at MICHIGAN speaks about the team, the team, the team. The people I have been associated with my whole life around this fantastic program — some (who) are living and some (who) have passed on — would never, I repeat never, spread blame.”
Until Saturday’s final play, many considered O’Neill to be Michigan’s Player of the Game. He pinned Michigan State deep multiple times when the Wolverines’ offense stalled. The field position helped their elite defense and pressured Spartans quarterback Connor Cook to make big plays.
Former Michigan punter Will Hagerup took to Facebook to support O’Neill.
“You just saw firsthand that punting is really hard,” Hagerup’s post read. “I challenge anyone to go catch a snap in 30 degree weather with 100,000 people watching.”
Hateful comments filled social media regarding the game’s final play. They ranged from “Deport O’Neill” to death threats, all over a football game in which they had no involvement.
But there have been plenty positive comments. ESPN broadcaster Joe Tessitore defended O’Neill Sunday in a clip. A Facebook page called “We support Wolverine Blake O’Neill” was created, and as of Monday morning, had over 10,000 “likes.” Business2community.com created a list of Tweets supporting O’Neill.
O’Neill’s gaffe isn’t the lone reason Michigan lost. Look at the 10 first downs it totaled compared to the Spartans’ 20. Or its eight penalties taken. Or its seven punts. Solve those issues and the Wolverines and O’Neill aren’t in that late-game situation.
“Everybody knew they could have (done) something more to get this game,” defensive tackle Willie Henry said.
O’Neill has been fabulous in his final collegiate season. He’s a significant reason why Michigan has matched its win total from last season in just six games.
O’Neill will shoulder the last 10 seconds and outcome of Saturday’s game the rest of his life. It’s mind-boggling that people would want to make it worse for him through hate.