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Wiser Wolverines have moved on from heartbreak

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Michigan punter Blake O'Neill loses the ball on the final play last year. It was recovered by MSU's Jalen Watts-Jackson and returned for the winning TD.

Ann Arbor – While everyone else will rehash the end of last year’s Michigan-Michigan State game, the Wolverines players say they’ve moved on long ago.

In the final 10 seconds of that game, Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap, and MSU’s backup defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson returned it for a touchdown and the 27-23 victory, giving the Spartans their seventh victory in the last eight UM-MSU games.

Michigan is ranked No. 2, boasts the nation’s top-ranked defense and is thinking about big-picture goals. Those goals include running the table this season, and that would mean beating Michigan State along the way. With that approach in mind, the Wolverines said Monday they will not heighten preparations for this week’s rivalry game any more than they did for, say, Illinois last week.

“We look at every game the same and intensely focus on every single game like it’s our last and we’ll be undefeated. That’s the plan,” All-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis said. “That’s the ultimate goal, to go undefeated and not look at any game as one better than the other or one weaker than the other.

“We prepare like we have nothing else to prepare for. That’s our mindset. That’s our offense, defense special teams’ mindset. We can’t look at Michigan State as the end-all, be-all, because it’s not. If we win the Michigan State game and lose the other games, it really doesn’t matter.”

Tight end Jake Butt, a co-captain of this team with defensive end Chris Wormley, was on the field for the punt and said it is impossible not to give the Spartans credit for how they finished that game.

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“I took my normal set, saw some guys rushing, tried to block my man, and I didn’t hear a punt go off so I turned around started running,” Butt said. “They executed on that play, and that’s football. It easily could have been us in the other position.

“It’s a credit to them for executing, but at the same time, we’re not caught up in that game, we’re not hanging our head about it. … I don’t feel we’re going to do anything different this week. We’ve approached every game the same, as if it was a championship game, because we’re not going to have to change anything that we’ve been doing. We’re going to continue to prepare the same way we have and try to execute the same way we have on Saturdays.”

O’Neill politely declined an interview request and said he will be watching the game and “wishing the boys the best of luck throughout the remainder of the season.”

After the game last year, Butt called it a “team loss,” not a loss to be shouldered by O’Neill. Coach Jim Harbaugh told his players the defeat would put “steel in our spine.”

“There’s no such thing as an easy loss or a good loss,” Butt said. “That’s a tough loss, especially because it’s a rivalry game and losing like that. But coach Harbaugh said it best -- it didn’t break our backs, it wasn’t heartbreaking, it didn’t ruin our season. If you look at the football we’ve been playing since that game, we’ve been playing at a very high level. It may have been a good thing to a certain extent.”

Harbaugh has said he never wants to be part of the losing side of a finish like that again, but has moved on, as well. The Wolverines have dropped one game since, a lopsided loss to Ohio State in the final regular-season game last season, and now have a 7-0 record, 4-0 Big Ten, while MSU is 2-5, 0-4.

“It’s not time to take a victory lap,” Harbaugh said Monday. “Just keep going at the same relentless intense pace that they have and approach that they have to every game. It’s a little over the halfway point, so you don’t want to take a victory lap, but you do have to recognize that this defense is playing unbelievable.”

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The players have bought into Harbaugh’s approach of not giving one game more focus than another.

“The ongoing strategy for our football team is to treat every opponent with respect, treat every game as a big game, every game as a championship game,” Harbaugh said. “Just learned that’s the best approach in our opinion and when you’re in those tight games, you’re in those pressure situations, you’ve already been there. You’ve already done that because you’ve treated every snap that way during the course of the season.”

Wormley was on the field for the final play last year. He, too, has moved on.

“Obviously, it’s a devastating play. It’s a shock,” said Wormley. “It’s played on the Big Ten Network once a week, so flipping the channels you see things like that. But at the end of the day, we’re a new team, this is a new season. You say, ‘What can you do to get better?’ and that’s what we’re doing this week.”