EAST LANSING — It was heartbreaking, Kenny Allen said, though even that doesn’t seem to do it justice.
A year and a couple of weeks ago, Allen stood in the Crisler Center media room after one of the most stunning losses in the history of college football. The kicker had the unenviable task of speaking to reporters after that crushing defeat — though there wasn’t much to say.
He spoke in a soft voice, his face still wearing the same expressionless shock as everyone else in the stadium that day. He said he was as close as he could have been to punter Blake O’Neill bobbling a snap with 10 seconds left before Michigan State returned it for a game-winning touchdown as time expired. At some point, after the Spartans changed the college football world and before he stepped foot into the media room, Allen told O’Neill that the team would stand behind him.
“We support Blake through everything,” Allen said that day. “That’s the kind of team we’re going to be.”
And that’s the kind of team the Wolverines have been since their in-state rival devastated them last Oct. 17. They have lost only once since. They capped a successful 2015 season with a rout of Florida in the Citrus Bowl. They have steamrolled eight opponents this season, most of them with ease.
And they have patiently waited for the day they could finally put their feelings about last year further into the rearview mirror.
Saturday in East Lansing, that chance came, though it came with plenty of memories. Three hours before the noon kickoff, a tailgate near the stadium played the audio from ESPN broadcaster Sean McDonough’s call of the play. Just outside the stadium, one man began reciting the same call to his friend. Inside, Michigan State’s students had bigger plans in mind.
At 10:50, as Allen began practicing field goals on the south goalposts in front of the student section, the 1,000 or so in the crowd began chanting the call: “Whoa, he has trouble with the snap! And the ball is free! It’s picked up by Michigan State’s Jalen Watts-Jackson, and he scores! On the last play of the game! Unbelievable!”
There was no escaping it, though Allen said he didn’t hear much of it. “You just have to have a sense of humor,” he said. Once the Wolverines started winning, the talk died down.
“Someone made fun of my mustache, which I’ve been working pretty hard to grow, so that one cut deep,” Allen quipped.
A year ago, humor was an impossible perspective. It could have been difficult even a few weeks ago. After Allen started his season 3-for-3 on field goals, he missed two kicks against Colorado on Sept. 17 and two more against Wisconsin on Oct. 1. After the latter game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh declared that there would be an open competition for the kicking job starting the following week. Allen never relinquished it.
Last week against Illinois, he hit two chip shots for his first conversions in five weeks. At Michigan State, he finished 3-for-3, making two more short kicks but also a season-long 45 yarder that helped put the game out of reach.
The Wolverines won, 32-23, beating the Spartans for the first time since 2012 and taking perhaps the biggest step toward putting last year’s mishap behind them. Allen was back among the top contributors from a simple math standpoint: Michigan won by nine, and he kicked three field goals worth three points each. If he hadn’t, the game could have turned out much differently. Perhaps he would have even been the goat, as O’Neill was last year.
“I’m so happy for him — he’s an amazing person, amazing player,” said senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis. “He did his job today. He did an amazing job today, kept us in the game, made sure we had the lead the whole game. I’m just proud of him. He did his job. He wasn’t worried about the past.”
Allen’s kicks Saturday silenced his critics and helped add more distance between now and last year. In the years to come, O’Neill’s miscue will fade deeper into the past. In Michigan’s next visit to East Lansing in 2018, the broadcast echoes will be less frequent, and the tongue-in-cheek T-shirt with O’Neill’s name and number should be gone from the front row of the student section.
The two rivals will play many more exciting games with exciting finishes, and the punt from last year will be but a memory alongside Colorado’s Hail Mary in 1994, John Wangler’s pass to Anthony Carter in 1979 and so many others.
The presence of last year’s game is not as faint as those yet, but the Wolverines have moved forward. Just before Allen got off the bus Saturday morning, O’Neill texted him and long snapper Scott Sypniewski. “I’m excited to see you guys go out there and do your thing,” Allen recalled the message saying.
The memory of last year still stings for now, but Saturday, Michigan went out and did its thing. With nine minutes to go in the game and the Wolverines up by 20, Allen dropped back to punt. Before he got it off without a hitch, the chant “Block the punt!” echoed from the Michigan State student section, calling up those demons from last year.
Perhaps the students had that chant planned for all afternoon. We’ll never know. That was Michigan’s first punt. For Saturday, that was a statement in itself.
Lourim can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @jakelourim.