Niyo: No worries, mate, Michigan punter is doing fine

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Michigan's Blake O'Neill punts in the fourth quarter Saturday against Michigan State.

Ann Arbor — Don’t worry about Blake O’Neill.

He’s fine. He’s smiling. He’s even cracking jokes, a few days after his botched punt last weekend at Michigan Stadium produced one of the most dramatic — and bizarre — endings in college football history.

“It’s been very interesting, that’s for sure,” O’Neill said Tuesday as the Wolverines returned to the practice field for the first time since that excruciating 27-23 loss to the Spartans.

And for those interested in how the 22-year-old Australian would handle his newfound infamy, his 10-minute session with the media provided a healthy, heartening answer.

Asked why he decided to speak to reporters, with Michigan in the bye week, O’Neill shrugged, “Why not?”

“I’m happy to speak,” he added, “if people are willing to listen.”

And listening to him speak Tuesday it was easy to understand why his coach, Jim Harbaugh, and others close to O’Neill were so confident that last weekend’s finish wouldn’t be the end of him. Or even the beginning of a difficult time for the fifth-year graduate transfer.

In fact, when a reporter suggested to him Tuesday how much his family’s presence — his parents, Michael and Roslyn, and his brother, Nathan, have been in Ann Arbor for the last month — had helped him through the “healing process,” he politely shot that notion down.

“Oh, I don’t if it was really a healing process,” he said. “You make errors in a football game. And you learn from them and you sort of move on.”

And that’s sort of what he’s doing right now, though by the sound of it, he already has moved on.

‘Bounced back 100 percent’

Don’t get him wrong. O’Neill said he genuinely appreciates the outpouring of support he has received the last few days, both from here and abroad.

“From the Michigan fan base, from teammates, from even people back home,” he said. “It’s funny that a game over here could go all the way back to Australia, but it did. And, mate, it’s been overwhelming, all the support I’ve received.”

UM players yearn for game to erase bitter loss

Some of it certainly was in response to the sad — but relatively scarce — commentary that showed up on social media in the immediate aftermath of the game. Michigan athletic director Jim Hackett issued a statement the next day urging fans “not lose this game twice by condoning thoughtless comments.”

That probably wasn’t necessary. But O’Neill thanked his AD for that, anyway, while admitting he’d steered clear of Twitter since the game.

“I tried to avoid that, yeah,” he laughed. “I figured I’d be better off just to let this one cool down a little bit before I check it.”

But he hasn’t gone into hiding, or even a funk.

“He’s been a lot tougher about it than I would be,” Michigan tailback De’Veon Smith said. “I would’ve be kinda messed up about it if it happened to me. But he’s bounced back completely, 100 percent. It’s like nothing has actually happened to him.”

‘Thought I had time’

As for what happened on that final play, when O’Neill couldn’t handle a low snap and then fumbled again in an ill-advised attempt to kick it while getting tackled, O’Neill confirmed what many had suggested: It was the Australian in him.

O’Neill hails from Melbourne, where the first organized games of Australian football were first played more than a century and a half ago. And while the rest of the world is often baffled by the American version — heck, the officiating crew struggled to make sense of it — the Aussie rules are relatively easy to understand. Holding the ball, or falling on it, isn’t an option. It’s against the law, basically.

And when things started to go bad, “instinct kicked in,” O’Neill said, “and I tried to sort of kick it over my head and it didn’t work out. ...

“We’re sort of taught to pick it up and move it on. Obviously, that’s completely on me, you know what I mean? I own this error and very much know that I could do better if I was to have my time over again. But football being what it is, you don’t get another chance.”

If given one, sure, he says, he’d do it differently.

“I knew I had pressure, but thought I had time,” O’Neill said. “Turned out not to be the case. And as fate would have it, that was the result.”

Of course, the result was nothing anyone had ever seen. The ball flew 15 yards and bounced into the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson, a Spartans redshirt freshman who raced 38 yards to victory as time expired, dislocating his hip as he was tackled in the end zone.

Jackson was back with his teammates on crutches Monday, hailed by his coach as “the legend.” O’Neill, meanwhile, was back at practice, hailing the “beauty of sport.”

“Football gods? You could twist it any way,” he said of Saturday’s ugly result, at least from Michigan’s perspective. “But at the same time, it was me that put the ball up and decided to kick it. Happened to go to him. That’s football.”

American football, in the end.

But still, Aussie rules: No worries, mate.