Like the vast majority of the college football world, Zoltan Mesko found himself speechless as Blake O’Neill’s fumble led to a heartbreaking defeat for the Michigan team Saturday night.
The former Wolverine captain, a four-year letterman from 2006-09 who still holds the program record for punts and punting yardage, has had a singular goal since that ill-fated final play transpired.
"My motivation for this conversation is to get people off Blake’s back," Mesko said Sunday night in a phone interview with Maize N Brew. "You can’t blame someone for trying their hardest. You can’t."
O’Neill’s attempt to pick up the loose ball and scissor-kick it ultimately resulted in the Spartans’ game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock – a moment which instantly became one of the most thrilling endings in the rivalry’s storied history.
The ensuing backlash at O’Neill has turned Mesko’s attention away from the bitter defeat and toward the fellow Wolverine and punter.
Mesko says he has been in contact with O’Neill, and the former Patriot also voiced his support publicly, joining Jay Feely and Garrett Rivas among a multitude of Michigan football graduates to do so
"Honestly, the loss to Michigan State was kind of diminished to the depths of, ‘Who cares?’ for me," Mesko said. "Just because I felt so bad for him."
Several variables, Mesko said, may have contributed to the botched play. The snap from Scott Sypniewski was low, forcing O’Neill to drop his hands. It also wasn’t a perfect spiral – and the cold weather likely didn’t help.
Michigan’s possibility of an error during punts is also increased by having O’Neill move laterally with the snap, which benefits the team by adding valuable time for the gunners to release downfield. The movement is something Mesko himself had learned under Rich Rodriguez during the punter’s final two years at Michigan, and it usually is very beneficial – but does carry with it some added risk.
Then came O’Neill’s efforts to pick up the loose ball for an apparent scissor-kick under pressure, a move which instead ended with Jalen Watts-Jackson and a convoy sprinting 35 yards the other way. Mesko doesn’t expect to see such a bizarre bounce and sequence of events again in his lifetime.
"It’s such a split-second decision," Mesko said. "People were saying, ‘Why didn’t you fall on it?’ Well, you just don’t have that much time to react. You just go by instinct. I can’t blame him for doing any of that sort of thing. I would have been in the same situation – although he’s probably 10 times more athletic than me."
Mesko can certainly empathize with O’Neill. Against Michigan State in 2009, Mesko’s senior season, the punter took advantage of having the freedom to turn a punt formation into a fake. Sometimes, Mesko says, he sees the replay and wishes he could "slap myself silly" to convince the player on screen to simply punt the ball. Instead he watches himself break left from the two yard line, try to cut right, and get gang tackled well short of a first down by a group of Spartan linemen.
While that play was premeditated, and O’Neill’s a combination of increasingly improbable errors coupled with stellar execution from Michigan State, the negative response to the punters has been similar.
"No person wants to be the person that gets pointed to," Mesko said. "I don’t know how to put it. I felt really terrible for him, because he was trying to do the best he could."
And, for the most part, he has. Through seven games, O’Neill is averaging 41.1 yards per kick and has dropped 17 inside the 20-yard line. That includes the 80-yarder and two other punts inside the 10-yard line Saturday, all of which helped Michigan dominate the special teams battle for 59 minutes and 50 seconds.
And while the minority of people who dumped criticism or have wished harm on O’Neill has since been drowned out by positive messages from Athletic Director Jim Hackett, and the likes of ESPN’s Joe Tessitore and Mike Greenberg, Mesko ended Sunday’s conversation with one final address to the "certain ignorant individuals" who have spewed vitriol.
Deflecting blame away from O’Neill was why Mesko had answered the phone, after all.
"This is the thing that bothers me most, and I’m sure that any kicker, any punter, any golfer, any anyone will tell you," Mesko said. "People are like, ‘Oh, you have one job. How are you messing that up?’ Well, a lot of other people have only one job. How about the linemen? Did you get your block? That’s one job. A lot of people mess up in life. Don’t mess up – that was your job. It comes down to a binary system. Everyone has one job. That phrase really bothers me.
"Put yourself in his shoes."