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Why you shouldn't feel bad for Blake O'Neill

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Michigan State stuns Michigan with miraculous TD in final seconds (0:25)

Top 10 finishes of 2015: Jalen Watts-Jackson grabbed a flubbed punt and ran 38 yards into the end zone for a touchdown on the final play of the game to give Michigan State a shocking 27-23 win over Michigan. (0:25)

Blake O'Neill would do the same thing if he had another chance.

O'Neill, the field-flipping punter whose successful one-year stint at Michigan will forever be remembered for a single play, ended up on the wrong side of college football history last October. In the final seconds of what looked to be a redemptive victory over rival Michigan State, O'Neill mishandled a knee-high snap and was then swarmed by Spartan defenders when he picked up the loose ball and tried to sneak off a bicycle kick to save a sour situation. The ball popped loose into the waiting arms of Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson, resulting in one of the most memorable and pivotal touchdowns of the 2015 season.

OK, so maybe he wouldn't do things exactly the same. O'Neill wishes he had found a different outlet that evening, but his approach under pressure wasn't shattered or even shaken. He would still try to make a play.

"Definitely. I don't think you want to suppress that," he said. "Could I have spent a bit more time understanding what happens in a situation where you drop the ball? For sure. You can look at this every which way from Sunday. Trust me. I have.

"I say, 'Why didn't I throw it of bounds or kick it along the ground and get a penalty or just drop on it?' But at the end of the day you do what you do. I don't think you want to suppress that. That ability to go out there and just turn yourself off from overthinking is one of the best skills a punter can have."

Australia has grabbed a strong foothold in college football, and it's influence is only growing stronger. Look no further than Friday night's season opener between Cal and Hawaii being played in Sydney's ANZ Stadium for evidence of the sport's growing popularity down under.

American coaches have turned to the other side of the world to find punters with more powerful legs and more athletic ability. But if you're going to have an athlete handling your punts, you better be prepared to have him thinking and reacting -- for better or worse -- like an athlete.

USC coach John Baxter, who coached special teams at Michigan a year ago, says the U.S. produces about 10 elite level punter prospects per year. Unless a kid has grown up dreaming of being a punter, there's no sport in America that teaches the skill of dropping a ball onto your foot and kicking it.

Australian Rules football is a game where the ball is moved predominantly by dropkicks. But Aussie Rules players aren't taught to just kick and get out of the way like American punters. They also are equally involved in catching, running and tackling. They bring that mentality with them when converting to the state-side version of football.

"They come from a completely different background and a completely different mindset than the kids in our country," Baxter said. "American punters are paint-by-numbers. These guys are painters. They're reactive. They're not robots."

Some American coaches have embraced that idea more than others. O'Neill was hoping to run a fake field goal in his final college game to show off some off his speed, but he blew out his knee while practicing the play during a practice leading into Michigan's trip to the Citrus Bowl.

O'Neill held for a few placekicks while his teammates handily beat Florida, but the torn ACL ended his college punting career a game early. His 23 punts inside an opponent's 20-yard line during the 2015 were one shy of a school record set by former NFL punter Zoltan Mesko in 2008.

The knee injury will also likely keep O'Neill from taking a shot at a professional career in football. He said he wasn't able to train for a try-out last spring and instead starting working for a real estate developer in Tampa, Florida.

"Things might change," he said. "I might wake up one morning and horribly miss football, but I don't really foresee I'll be trying out next year."

O'Neill stays involved with football by helping a couple local high school teams in Florida and working at a few kicking camps. He made an appearance at Michigan's satellite camp in Australia this summer while home waiting for a work visa.

Staying involved in the football and kick communities is important to O'Neill after he saw the positive power they could have during his season at Michigan, especially in the wake of the Michigan State finish. O'Neill caught the ugly side of college football fans and Twitter vitriol from a small contingent of people on social media after the game, but said the response he got in the following week from teammate, fans and fellow kickers was overwhelmingly supportive.

"People you would never think would take the time to reach out would call and leave a message, taking the time to reach out and be very supportive," O'Neill said. "I think you take life lessons from that as far as being involved in a community and giving back to it."

O'Neill has never shied away from his mistake against the Spartans, but he moved on from it quicker than most Michigan fans. Nathan Chapman, who helped O'Neill and many others make the jump to the U.S. through his ProKick Australia in Melbourne, said being older and more mature helped O'Neill quickly put the incident behind him. The anti-Ray Finkle attitude also illustrates a fundamental difference in the way Australians view sports.

"Our history, only being a 200-year history, we're still a nation in the act of becoming something," O'Neill said. "But it's a country pretty much built on the idea of mateship and helping each other -- this idea of 'giving it a fair go.' Our politicians love using that one.

"I would say in Australia that's sort of the way we approach it. More or less, the terminology is based on perspective. The idea of a fair go is, 'Let's go out there and have a bit of fun and play this sport.' We all care. We can get emotional about it. We all love the game. But at the end of the day I can still walk across and shake the guy's hand and say 'Well done, mate. Good contest. You got me today.'"

Michigan was "the intersection of fulfilling my own goals of playing on a high level and then also feeling like a part of something bigger" for O'Neill. He may be moving on from football, but he doesn't regret making the long trek across the Pacific to be a part of it. Even if the impression he leaves is dominated by one ill-fated kick attempt on a cold October night, he'd do it all the same way again.