Hackett denounces 'vicious' comments aimed at O'Neill

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
De'Veon Smith and the Wolverines walk off the field after Saturday's loss.

Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett, in an open letter on Sunday to the Michigan community, sounded off on those who took vicious shots at Michigan punter Blake O’Neill after a late-game error in the 27-23 loss to Michigan State.

O’Neill took a low snap from Scott Sypniewski, dropped it, picked it up and spun around and attempted to kick but fumbled into the hands of Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, who scored on a 38-yard return giving the Spartans the victory on Saturday at Michigan Stadium.

Some fans responded with vitriol directed at O’Neill through social media. Hackett praised the team’s effort in his open letter saying the game proved “the progress that we are making in our football program.” But he also addressed the nastiness an outcome and produce.

“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 wrote. “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 whom are living and some whom have passed on — would never, I repeat never, spread blame.

“As our head coach said yesterday, ‘…this outcome will steel our spine.’

“That means all of us.

"I'm asking that our community not lose this game twice by condoning thoughtless comments and remember the Fielding Yost comment that this is the "Michigan of ours."

Current players said they gave their teammate, O’Neill, support, and several former players also have taken to social media to chastise any fans who may have been critical of him while also offering O’Neill support.

A Facebook fan page called “We Support Wolverine Blake O’Neill” has been created for those who wish to post commentary on the subject.

Teammate Willie Henry said he spoke to O’Neill after the fumble that led to the Spartans’ victory.

“I told him to keep his head up,” Henry said. “Everybody wasn’t perfect. I didn’t have the best game. I feel like we’ve got the world in his hands. We’ve got a lot of trust in Blake.”

Earlier in the game, O’Neill had an 80-yard punt that was downed inside the 2-yard line.

Kicker Kenny Allen, who made three field goals for the Wolverines, said he also offered words of encouragement to O’Neill.

“I talked to him (and) I just told him we’re behind him,” Allen said. “We support Blake through everything, and that’s the kind of team we’re going to be.”

O’Neill had a career-best 312 yards on seven punts in the MSU game, including the 80-yarder, the longest in FBS this season.

He had three punts inside the 20 against the Spartans — at the 2-yard line, eight and four. For the season, 17 of his punts have been downed inside the 20.

Support for O’Neill came from a number of players, including former punter Will Hagerup, whose last season was 2014.

“You just saw first hand that punting is really hard,” Hagerup posted on Facebook after the game. “I challenge anyone to go catch a snap in 30 degree weather with 100,000 people watching. He had a terrific game and put our defense in great field position multiple times.”

Former Michigan punter Zoltan Mesko also issued support via Twitter.

“I don’t care what any college player does to your Saturday afternoon mood,” Mesko wrote. “They are all student-athletes and they don’t owe you a thing.”

Former Michigan safety Jordan Kovacs reminded on Twitter that O’Neill, a native of Australia and graduate transfer from Weber State, has been a weapon for Michigan this season.

“He’s had a hell of a season and had more great punts today,” Kovacs wrote. “Big reason for this team’s success #TheTeamTheTeamTheTeam.”

Glen Steele, a defensive end on Michigan 1997 national championship team, wrote on Facebook that he “enjoyed the fight” of this team and said he knows where the program is headed.

“(I) know that 1 play does not win or lose a game,” Steele wrote. “There are many opportunities and (missed) opportunities in a game. They continue to fight as a team and great things are coming. Great Game. GO BLUE.”