UM's O'Neill on blunder: You 'dust yourself off and move on'
Ann Arbor — Michigan punter Blake O'Neill said in the heat of the moment, even as the play was breaking down, he was still trying to make the punt that he was sent onto the field to execute in the final 10 seconds of the Michigan-Michigan State game last Saturday.
The ending has become infamous nationally, and O'Neill initially was the target of cruel messages via social media, but by Tuesday after practice when he met with media for the first time, he appeared upbeat and to have moved on.
Michigan was leading by two at Michigan Stadium last Saturday when O'Neill took a low snap from Scott Sypniewski, which he said was "in the catch zone," dropped it, picked it up and spun around to kick it but fumbled into the hands of Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson. Watts-Jackson scored on a 38-yard return giving the Spartans a stunning 27-23 victory, their seventh in the last eight meetings with the Wolverines.
"Like any other punt you sort of go out there, and go 'This is what I'm going to try to do' and try to execute to the best of your ability," said O'Neill, an Australian who grew up playing Australian rules football. "Obviously, that didn't work, and my instinct kicked in and I tried to sort of kick it over my head and it didn't work out.
"That's life, that's football, you learn from it and say I can do better and sort of pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on."
O'Neill, who had three punts downed inside the 8-yard line against Michigan State, said he wasn't told to fall on the ball in the event he mishandled the punt saying they never plan for the worst outcome. He said his instincts from years of playing Aussie rules played a role.
"We're sort of taught to pick it up and move it on," he said of Aussie football. "Obviously that's completely on me. I own this error and very much know I could to do better if I had my time over again, but obviously football being what it is you don't get another chance."
Certainly, he was feeling the heat of the Michigan State rush but said he was not flustered.
"It's not really panic," he said. "It's funny because obviously playing Australian football you feel pressure quite well and your peripherals are quite good — the helmet takes a little bit of that away. I knew I had pressure but thought I had time. Turned out not to be the case as fate would have it, that was the result."
Center Graham Glasgow has seen the play more times than he'd like. He was standing on the sideline directly across from O'Neill and saw the whole scene unfold. He said people can't possibly know how to react in a situation like that.
"The snap was bobbled and as soon as he probably lifted his head there were guys in his face," Glasgow said Tuesday. "All these people criticizing him I don't know what they would have done in that scenario. He did what he thought was best, and I can't knock him for that. He had a good game besides that and he's done everything we've asked of him this year."
O'Neill's parents and brother are in Ann Arbor visiting from Australia. He was asked if having his family here helped him through the healing process.
"I don't know if there's really a healing process," O'Neill said. "You make errors in a football game, you learn from them and you sort of move on."
He said he's appreciative of the support from Michigan fans.
"They've been very interesting, that's for sure," O'Neill said of the last few days. "A lot of support from the Michigan fan base from teammates, from even people back home. It's funny that a game over here could get all the way back to Australia, but it did. It's been overwhelming the support ever since."
He has taken a matter-of-fact approach while also being cognizant of avoiding social media these last several days.
"I tried to avoid that — better let this one cool down before I check it," he said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh spoke to a small group of reporters following his weekly radio show Monday night and said O'Neill has a strong character and has no doubt the graduate-transfer punter will move on.
"I believe he's going to handle it, and he is," Harbaugh said. "I think he's gonna handle it as well or better than anybody we've seen in this position. It's never one play in a football game that determines a football game. Never seen it. Didn't happen in this game and don't ever think I will see it."
Teammates immediately after the game said they told O'Neill to keep his head up and move on.
"The Michigan football team all rallied around me and said, 'Look, one play doesn't define a game, we'll come back stronger from this' and as coach said put steel in our spine and become a better team," O'Neill said.
Tailback De'Veon Smith praised O'Neill's poise in handling the aftermath.
"He's been a lot tougher than I would be," Smith said Tuesday. "I would be messed up about it if that happened to me, but he's bounced back completely, 100 percent. It's like that play never happened. (He) definitely has a strong mindset."
Obviously, no one on the team wanted to see a mistake like this happen to any individual.
"It's really unfortunate this had to happen to him," Glasgow said. "I feel bad for him. It sucks it had to happen to Blake."
And then Glasgow lifted his mood with a quick observation of O'Neill.
"He's got a great accent, too," Glasgow said drawing laughter. "It's pretty awesome."