There was nothing the members of the No. 12 Michigan football team could do. Michigan State defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson had already stumbled into the end zone after the game’s final play, stealing a victory for the seventh-ranked Spartans out of thin air.

Some Wolverines lay on the field, bodies frozen. Others sprinted into the tunnel as quickly as they could. A few lagged behind while they exited the field, the pain apparent in each step.

Fifth-year senior punter Blake O’Neill, the perpetrator of the game-ending mistake, headed to the sideline after the game-ending play. He took a drink of water and began the slow walk to the tunnel. The fans in the stands sat in silence, unable to comprehend what they had witnessed.

But moments later, at least for the players, the process of recovering from the most devastating of losses had to begin. Up until the final play of Saturday night’s game, the season had been progressing like few expected, in a positive fashion. But then one play, one miscue, stopped the momentum in its tracks.

The mood in the locker room was somber, redshirt junior defensive tackle Willie Henry said. He did not see any tears, but there were no smiles.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh entered to give the team a talk. He told them to have steel in their spines, the resolve to move forward.

“We can’t kill ourselves over one loss,” Henry said. “It hurts, we know it hurts everybody that we lost a game like this, so close in the final seconds like that.”

For O’Neill, the task of moving forward will be more difficult. The final play of the loss is not one that will be replayed for a few days. It will live on for years.

All Michigan needed was a clean punt to win the game. But O’Neill took the low snap and fumbled it away. In hindsight, Harbaugh said, O’Neill should have just fell on the ball. A victory for the Spartans still would have required a Hail Mary.

Some fans did not take well to O’Neill’s gaffe. He received death threats on Twitter within an hour of the game’s conclusion. Others told him to go back to Australia, his native country, or to never show his face in the state of Michigan again. A fake account titled “Michigan’s Punter” poked fun of O’Neill’s mistake and accumulated thousands of retweets.

O’Neill’s teammates did not want him to shoulder all of the blame. He was a major part of the game’s final mistake, but it was not the only one.

“I left plays out there myself,” Henry said.

Harbaugh repeated the “steel in our spine” refrain multiple times during his postgame press conference. He had insisted all week that Saturday’s game was just like any other, Michigan State a foe just another team in the Wolverines’ way.

After the game, Harbaugh treated the loss like he would any other. He was disappointed with the officiating, but did not overstate the impact of the loss when he spoke to his players.

“They played their guts out,” Harbaugh said. “Played winning football, overcame so much. And we messed up the play at the end.”

Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, who was euphoric after his team’s victory, provided some additional perspective.

He has been involved in the rivalry for nine seasons, but none of the games had been like this. Few are.

“I’ve learned to just take things like this: It’s never as good as you think; it’s never as bad as you think,” Dantonio said. “Try and just take life as it comes.”

For now, that will not be an easy task for Michigan. The Wolverines are left to pick up the pieces. Their undefeated Big Ten record disappeared in 10 seconds, and a rivalry trophy that was as good as theirs will remain on the other side of the state.

Henry, in the shock of the moment, didn’t know exactly how to feel.

“It probably won’t hit me until tomorrow,” he said, “how much it really sucks to lose to an opponent like this.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *