Niyo: Dazed Wolverines gasp for air after Spartans' gut punch

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — They'll be devastated once they've made sense of it.

They'll be heartbroken once they've wrapped their minds around the loss.

But in the aftermath of Saturday's absurd finish, as Michigan State turned a botched punt into an incredible 27-23 victory over rival Michigan, the Wolverines' reaction was no different than that of most in the crowd of 111,740 at Michigan Stadium.

"I'm still confused," fullback Sione Houma said, his voice flat and his face expressionless. "I still can't fathom what happened."

Confusion. Disbelief. Surprise. Those were some of the words the Wolverines offered up. But those were just words, and words couldn't begin to describe the depths of their emotions or the decompression sickness that was setting in. Not after what had transpired here Saturday — the wildest, weirdest ending to a football game anyone could remember in this stadium.

"It's just kind of surreal," said kicker Kenny Allen, whose fourth-quarter field goal figured to be the winner right up until the final seconds. "It hasn't hit me yet. I don't know what happened. … Sometimes things just happen. You don't know why."

The who, though, everyone knew. And even as idiots on social media were bombarding punter Blake O'Neill with vile commentary, his teammates were doing what they could to defend him.

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"I just told him that everyone has his back," Allen said. "We're behind him 100 percent. We're not the type of team that's gonna turn on each other and point fingers. We're gonna support our guys."

As for how O'Neill was coping, Allen could only shake his head. The scene in Michigan's postgame locker room was not one he cared to share, or relive. And besides, there was no way he could know the thoughts running through O'Neill's mind. Who could, really?
"He didn't really say much," Allen said. "No one was really talking much. We got in there, and we just wanted get changed and get out."

There was no getting away from this, though. Not in that moment, not after what had transpired for the Wolverines.

The cruel irony was there for all to see, as that final play went haywire. Michigan's special-teams play — a disaster a year ago — had bordered on brilliant for most of this season, and it stood to be the difference in Saturday's game as well.

Allen connected on all three of his field-goal attempts. Jabrill Peppers provided a spark with long punt and kickoff returns. A fake punt by Michigan State's Tyler O'Connor came up short, setting up Michigan's third-quarter touchdown to build a 10-point lead.

And O'Neill, the Australian rugby-style punter who a year ago was playing for Weber State, actually set the tone Saturday, booming an 80-yarder on his first attempt, flipping the field and giving the Wolverines some early momentum.

But it's his last punt Saturday that will live in infamy, as the graduate transfer mishandled a low snap, struggled to pick up the football and then fumbled it away on a desperate try to kick it as he was hit by Michigan State's Grayson Miller and Matt Morrissey.

Only 10 seconds remained, with the Wolverines facing fourth-and-2 at the Spartans' 47-yard line, and with Michigan State out of timeouts there wasn't much debate about what to do on the Michigan sideline. Rather than giving the Spartans a chance at a Hail Mary with a failed fourth-down conversion, coach Jim Harbaugh's instructions to O'Neill were direct.

"I told him to catch it and punt it," he said. "When they lined up for the punt, they didn't have any returners. It was just a matter of catching it and punting it. We messed it up."

Had O'Neill simply gone down, the mess might've been manageable. Michigan State would've had time for one play from the 40-yard line. Instead, they had time for one remarkable return by Jalen Watts-Jackson, who scooped up the fumble and took it 38 yards for the touchdown as time expired.

O'Neill, like most of his teammates, was nothing but a bystander at that point, as the Michigan fans went silent and the scoreboard went blank.

Miscue of miscues

"I talked to him," said Harbaugh, who also had some choice words for the officiating Saturday, as you'd expect. "He said after he bobbled it he still thought he could get the ball kicked. It was a mistake. A mistake was made. Mistakes were made. Not fielding it cleanly, and then once you bobbled it a few times you should've just fell on it. Mistakes were made. Very unfortunate circumstances."

And, yes, the seventh-ranked Spartans (7-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) felt fortunate to escape with the win, notwithstanding Jackson's hip injury suffered on the winning touchdown.

"You go from 10 seconds, the guy punting the ball and thinking, 'OK, this is done,' then all of a sudden life gets flipped upside down and we come out on the top of it," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.

"Football is a crazy, crazy game," he added. "I can't really explain it."

Statistics certainly can't explain it, either. But if you believe in the numbers, this is just how nuts that finish was: Michigan State's "win probability" before that final play was 0.2 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Where this ranks on the all-time list of gut punches for Michigan fans is hard to say. There was the Hail Mary loss to Colorado in 1994. There was the loss to Michigan State here in 1990, when the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 and Desmond Howard was tripped by Eddie Brown in that same end zone. And there were others, of course.

But based on the sheer improbability of the finish, and the anguish, this loss is hard to beat.

And though the few Wolverines who met with the media after the game tried to put on a brave face — Harbaugh talked about "resolve" and "steel in the spine" and "moving forward" — they were still absorbing the shock.

"It just happened so fast," Houma said. "Everybody's still taking it in. It probably won't hit us until tomorrow."

But in the moment, even that seemed like wishful thinking.