Ann Arbor — Michigan special teams coordinator John Baxter watched the final seconds of the Michigan-Michigan State game in disbelief.
Baxter, speaking to the media for the first time since that game a month ago, described how he felt after the Oct. 17 game when punter Blake O’Neill, with 10 seconds remaining, fumbled and Michigan State scored in the wild ending for a 27-23 loss
Baxter, meeting with media on Wednesday afternoon before practice, also discussed how in each of the last two games the Wolverines allowed two touchdowns on returns.
“The fluke of all flukes,” Baxter said Wednesday of the MSU finish. “This is my 30th college football season, and when you think you’ve seen it all, don’t worry, something else is coming. It’s a game with really neat young people and a ball that’s not round, and I guess that’s what creates the drama.”
Three days after the game, O’Neill, an Australian and graduate transfer from Weber State, met with media and spoke freely about the end of the game, his emotions and dealing with some vicious messages directed at him through social media.
Baxter praised O’Neill’s maturity.
“What he said to me is, he talked about, ‘Should I write a statement, or what should I do?’ ” Baxter said. “My only thought was, talk to the media. And he says, ‘Oh, I’m going to get to?’ And I said, ‘Of course you are.’ And he says, ‘Well, good, that’s why I came to Michigan. I came for exposure. I came to play on the big stage.’ Well, that’s what you get.
“I’m really proud of Coach (Jim) Harbaugh and our team and our coaches and the way guys have stood in there and addressed straight away what has happened. If you’re going to take the accolades, you’ve got to take the other side, too. It’s a fun organization to be part of right now.”
Against Rutgers on Nov. 7, Janarion Grant had returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, and he also had a 67-yard punt return that set up a field goal. At Indiana last week, Mitchell Paige had a 51-yard punt return for a touchdown.
“We had four hands on him, and we slipped off and he pulled out,” Baxter said of the Paige touchdown return.
For what has been a vastly improved special teams showing at Michigan, these miscues the last two games have been glaring but, Baxter said, not impossible to fix.
“We’ve had three negative plays go against us, which is unfortunate, because it only takes one negative play to put a damper on a really nice body of work,” Baxter said. “Let’s put it this way, in the game you’ve got to tackle and when you get the opportunity to tackle, you’ve got to tackle. It really comes down to that. It’s really difficult to ever embrace an attitude of tired, beat up, because in November everyone in this game is.
“The places where we leak oil, we’ve got to get those oil leaks patched.”
Baxter believes special teams offer a window into a team’s psyche, and he’s pleased overall with how they have performed this season. He credited Harbaugh for giving special teams ample meeting time.
“Your special teams reflect your team, that’s the way I’ve always looked at it,” he said. “If you want to see a team that’s together, put on a kicking reel. And you know what, we’ve been a team that’s been together.”