Last week, I wrote that Saturday's contest between the Wolverines and the Spartans would be the Mother of all Michigan-Michigan State games. Clearly, I had no idea.
The atmosphere before the game was electric. With 12th-ranked Michigan suddenly relevant again, Wolverine fans were hoping for the best, while Michigan State fans, whose team had slipped from second to seventh, were fearing the worst. For the first time in years, the rivalry was billed as a heavyweight prize fight -- and it delivered.
The Wolverines opened the scoring with a touchdown, and the Spartans counterpunched with their own six minutes later. The rest of the game, Michigan would land a shot, and Michigan State would follow -- always keeping it close, but never quite catching up.
The Spartans outgained the Wolverines, 386 yards to 230, but Michigan held the lead until the last play of the game. How was that possible? By relying on great special teams play, especially from their fantastic punter, Blake O'Neill.
O'Neill grew up in Melbourne playing Australian Rules Football, a game that requires unusual strength, stamina and coordination. He decided to jump the ocean to play American college football, first at Weber State, and now at Michigan, where he is pursuing a Master's degree.
When Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh first met him this summer, and asked him to kick the ball, O'Neill asked, "Which way?" Unlike most American kickers, O'Neill can deliver the football high or low, left or right, or with a side-winder motion.
Harbaugh seemed to like them all, and made O'Neill the team's starting punter. O'Neill has been nothing short of spectacular. He has stuck half his 33 punts this season inside the opponents' 20-yard line, with only two touchbacks. Opponents have been able to return O'Neill's punts an average of less than two yards -- or, in other words, they haven't been able to return them at all.
Against Michigan State, O'Neill was in top form, kicking three punts inside the Spartans' 10-yard line, one of them a staggering 80 yards, the longest in Michigan Stadium's 89-year history. At the time, I tweeted that Michigan's most valuable player might be the punter.
With Michigan holding a 23-21 lead, with ten seconds left and the ball on Michigan State's 47-yard line, Michigan needed only to punt the ball, and kill the remaining seconds to secure arguably the Wolverines' biggest win in this century-old rivalry.
Afterward, even Spartan head coach Mark Dantonio admitted, "You go from 10 seconds, a guy punting the ball [and] you're thinking, 'OK, this is done.' And then all of a sudden, life gets flipped upside down."
The snap came to O'Neill a little low. When he reached down to catch it, the ball bounced off his hands, and onto the turf. He scooped it up, and tried to kick it. But instead, he inadvertently tossed the ball to Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson, who dashed down the sidelines, just barely making it across the goal line for the game-winning score.
In the press box, everyone who managed to say anything all said the same thing: "I cannot believe what I just saw."
Michigan State fans were ecstatic. Michigan fans were too shocked to be upset, standing with their hands on their heads in stunned silence.
Given the unbelievable events, and the history between these two teams, I thought the players, coaches and fans on both sides generally carried themselves with class, with the usual notable exceptions.
The only truly disturbing behavior came from a minority of Michigan fans -- and not toward the Spartans, but Michigan punter Blake O'Neill. It's all too predictable, in the Internet age, that some fans felt the need to email, text and tweet O'Neill their thoughts.
A man named Chris Vomish (@TheEricTylor1) tweeted that O'Neill should go to the equipment room and "start chugging that bleach my friend." After fans reacted to his tweet, Vomish deleted it, explaining that, "Everyone's entitled to their opinion," apparently confusing his asinine comment with an actual opinion.
Another tweeter, who goes by @jaaake_f1, told O'Neill to "jump off of a cliff into a pool of spikes and cyanide" and that "you might as well cut your hands off." When he, too, received backlash, he asked, "Can't I just be a sarcastic salty Michigan fan without all this hate in my mentions??" Yeah, where did all that hate start, anyway?
MGoBlog's Brian Cook tracked down the worst offenders, and discovered most of them are teenagers. I suppose that's reassuring, in a strange way, but the players who read this stuff don't know that. Most players I know get plenty of acid emails and tweets from people who are clearly adults, too, whose notes occasionally include racial taunts.
Alas, we're not likely to change human nature any time soon. Even Supernurse Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, got hate mail, fer cryin' out loud. But this ugly phenomenon seems to apply disproportionately to sports fans.
In 1905, Michigan had been riding an unheard of 56-game unbeaten streak, including four straight Big Ten and national titles. In the last game of the fifth season, however, against arch-rival Chicago, Michigan's Denny Clark tried to run the ball out of the end zone, got caught for a safety, and Michigan lost by the improbable score of 2-0.
Clark received hate mail and death threats, but also a rousing reception upon his return to campus. It wasn't enough to keep him from transferring to MIT, however. Twenty-seven years later, in a Portland, Oregon, hotel room, Clark wrote a note saying he hoped his "final play" would make up for it all, and killed himself.
In the 110 years since that game the only thing that's really changed is the Internet, where cowardice masquerades as courage. Twitter amplifies the worst sides of our worst people -- usually without consequence. These are people who have no idea what it would be like to do anything in front of 110,000 people -- how many of us do? -- but feel compelled to reward the genuine bravery of the college kids on the field by sending them nasty notes, most likely from their mother's basement. They don't even have the guts to sign them.
These drive-by cheap shot artists shoot from the shadows, while their victims are known to everyone. They suffer the damage forever, since everything posted on line will follow you the rest of your life. It's like nuclear waste. You just can't get rid of the stuff. Duke lacrosse, anyone?
This time, the good news arrived shortly after the anonymous experts had their 15 minutes, when the better angels among us, including some notable Spartans, stood up and showered O'Neill with sympathy and support. Michigan interim athletic director sent a letter to their fans defending O'Neill and the team, and urging civility.
Former Michigan punter Will Hagerup posted a message on Facebook, stating, "You just saw first hand that punting is really hard. I challenge anyone to go catch a snap in 30 degree weather with 100,000 people watching. He had a terrific game and put our defense in great field position multiple times."
O'Neill's fans even set up a Facebook page for O'Neill, which, as of this writing, had 11,000 subscribers.
When cretins confuse the contests with actual combat, and themselves with the supreme judge of the universe, it's a good time to remember that these games only matter because we say they do -- a generally harmless illusion we create for ourselves, and share with millions. We created this play.
Sports build character, but they also reveal it, too -- and not just of the athletes.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of four New York Times bestsellers. His latest book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football was published in September. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.