Harbaugh says botched punt was learning moment
ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- Jim Harbaugh prides himself on preparing his teams for every possible scenario.
Michigan's coach acknowledged Monday he learned "several things," in the aftermath of last year's infamous loss to Michigan State in which a botched punt with 10 seconds left led to one of the most dramatic finishes in college football history.
"Have the punter at the right depth," Harbaugh said when pressed on what he learned from the play. "Not be in a spread punt in that situation."
Harbaugh called a timeout and chose to punt on a fourth-and-2 from the Spartans 47, leading by two points, after De'Veon Smith ran the ball three straight times trying to pick up a first down and run time off the clock. Harbaugh sent punter Blake O'Neill onto the field, and the Australian lined up about 16 yards deep to field the snap. Harbaugh had two gunners -- players lining up as if they were wide receivers -- in the formation as if it was just another punt.
Michigan State rushed 10 players, leaving one gunner uncovered and no one deep to return a potential punt. O'Neill bobbled a low snap and instead of falling on the ball as Harbaugh would say after the game he wished the punter had done -- though O'Neill was never coached to do that -- he whirled and tried to get the kick off only to be swarmed by Spartans. The football was jarred out of O'Neill's hands and directly into the arms of Jalen Watts-Jackson, who returned it for a 38-yard, game-winning, game-ending touchdown that left him with a broken hip after Wolverines tight end Jake Butt tackled him.
Michigan State's 27-23 victory was its third straight in the series and seventh win in eight games since Michigan's last win at Spartan Stadium in 2007.
When the bitter rivals meet again Saturday, many believe it would take something short of a miracle for the Spartans to extend their streak.
No. 2 Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) has lost only one game since losing to Michigan State on Oct. 17, 2015, at the Big House. The Spartans (2-5, 0-4) have lost five straight and are underdogs by more than three touchdowns at home.
Smith said the final seconds of last year's game are "still boiling" within him and added "we still taste it in our mouth." O'Neill declined an interview request this week.
Wormley and Butt were two of three players positioned between the line and O'Neill on last year's punt team. The trio of blockers took steps toward the right to prepare for a rugby-style punt after the snap, leaving the left side of the line outnumbered by the Spartans' aggressive formation.
"Obviously, it's a devastating play," Wormley said . "It's a shock. You can kind of scratch your head and say, `What just happened?' It's played on the Big Ten Network probably once a week. Or, you flip through the channels and you see it. But at the end of the day, we're a new team. It's a new season."
Butt had the last and best shot to change the outcome last year. He sprinted just in time to hit Watts-Jackson as he approached the goal line and landed on him in the end zone.
"I didn't hear the punt go off so I just turned around and started running," Butt recalled. "They executed on that play and that's football. It easily could've been us in the other position. That's the great thing about football. Anything can happen. The game is never over.
"But we're not caught up in that game. We're not hanging out heads about it. If anything, it'll motivate us a little bit more this week."