The thought of the play still stings the hearts of Michigan fans. In 10 short seconds, a defeat of a top-10 team and in-state rival turned into the Wolverines’ seventh loss in eight games against Michigan State. The play — in which fifth-year punter Blake O’Neill fumbled a low snap into the arms of Spartan safety Jalen Watts-Jackson, who ran it 38 yards for a touchdown and a 27-23 victory — has been shown frequently on seemingly every sports channel in the country for many of the nine days since it occurred.
The stunned crowd of 111,740 couldn’t believe it, and neither could the players. But with games once again on the horizon after a bye week, both are moving forward.
Like any major grievance, recovering from the loss to the Spartans was a multi-step process.
Putting on our therapist hats, the Daily takes a look at the team’s seven-step process of recovering from the loss.
Michigan fans will remember this one well. As Michigan State piled into the end zone, the fans who packed the stands didn’t move, unable to comprehend what had happened — unable to believe it to be true and desperately hoping that it wasn’t.
The Wolverines left the field, but they were just as unclear about how the game ended.
“It wasn’t until the next day that I believed it was real,” said senior defensive end Royce Jenkins-Stone on Monday. “Definitely the way we lost was, like, unbelievable. Nobody would have thought we would have lost that way. Just losing to State, didn’t want to do that.”
Added senior defensive tackle Willie Henry after the loss: “You go out there and play your hearts out with your teammates, and to lose something like that. … It’s just hard to gather right now.”
2) Pain and guilt
Once the loss proved to be inescapable, the sheer pain of such a deflating play set in. The loss almost certainly eliminated Michigan from playoff contention, and stacks the odds against it winning the Big Ten.
In addition, it meant another year of thinking about what could have been, and hearing about it from the Wolverines’ in-state rival.
“I’m still not over it. It’s in my mind that we lost, but we’ve just got to move on,” said junior cornerback Jourdan Lewis last Tuesday. “We take that loss as a lesson, just execute better and just work on the things we have to work on.”
Though the play was on nearly every TV station and dominated social media conversations, the players did their best and “shied away” from the memory, knowing that it wouldn’t go away, but hoping it would.
“I mean, I don’t know how many times you can see that (play happen),” said senior center Graham Glasgow. “There were a lot of things that had to go their way. I would consider it more like a miracle than a fluke for them. Everything really went more their way as opposed to things not going our way, but good for them.”
3) Anger and bargaining
As time passed, the Wolverines’ perspective changed. No longer was it about avoiding the play; it was about wishing the loss couldn’t be pinned on O’Neill, placing the focus on all the other plays that contributed to the loss.
“That play didn’t lose us the game,” Jenkins-Stone said. “We had plenty of opportunities to win that game before that play. I know I left plays on that field — we all did.”
O’Neill’s play will forever be remembered by football fans as the defining moment of the game, but the players on the team will remember which plays they didn’t make, and would do anything to try again.
“I know everyone thinks that it’s on that last play,” said redshirt junior wide receiver Amara Darboh. “But there were that we could’ve made, and I’m just kind of going over it again in my head and what I could’ve done better … This one just took a little longer.”
Fortunately for the Wolverines, time was on their side in recovery. With a chance to go home during fall break, and return to practices that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said were only 50 percent gameplan and 50 percent individual development, Michigan got to reflect not only on its goals on the field, but also on who it is as a team.
“We had Sunday off, had Monday off, so it just gave us time to relax and think about the game,” said senior defensive back Dymonte Thomas. “When we came back in, Coach Harbaugh said when we go outside, that’s our medicine. Whatever’s going on, the fresh breeze, the football field, the turf and grass and all that should just clear your mind of anything that’s going on.”
Harbaugh was also quick to squash the hypothetical talks of last week in his weekly press conference Monday.
“(I’m) not into the ‘if-this, if-that’ type of scenarios,” Harbaugh said. “If worms had machine guns, then birds (would) be scared of them. We’re looking to (define) our season over the next number of games that we play.”
5) Upward turn
The Wolverines did just that, using every hit, play and sprint at practice to cope with the miracle loss. The players who had embraced all of Harbaugh’s intense quirks — such as doing extra sprints for winning — once again looked to their leader for the cure. Despite the unique loss, the antidote was nothing new.
“We’re doing something very special!” Harbaugh quipped. “(It’s a) dirty, four-letter word: W-O-R-K.”
By step six of the seven steps, the grievers are supposed to have some grasp on what happened and seek realistic solutions to coping in the long term. For the Wolverines, this meant planning for Minnesota, and understanding that there are still at least five games left to win.
“It’s on us to start winning again and just keep winning every game we can,” Henry said. “The best way to wash out a bad loss is a good win.”
Next up comes Minnesota, another trophy game, and — with the Golden Gophers struggling to a 4-3 start without any quality wins — a great opportunity for the Wolverines to rebuild after the loss.
“I feel bad for Minnesota,” Jenkins-Stone said. “We’re going to be coming out with a lot of energy now.”
7) Acceptance and hope
It didn’t happen overnight for everyone, but Michigan enters the week at 5-2, ranked 15th in the country, with lofty goals still in play and plenty of optimism to make them happen. The Wolverines are two-touchdown favorites in their upcoming trip to Minnesota, and have a new outlook on their previous loss.
“I look back it and just laugh about it,” said junior running back De’Veon Smith. “Because it was a crazy play, a great play by them. I laughed in disbelief it happened to you because you only see that happen to other teams and it just so happened to our team.”
Added Harbaugh: “It’s kind of like a book: the prologue has been written and now if it’s going to be a great book, then it’s got to have one heck of a conclusion.”