football-fbs flag

Chris Solari | Detroit Free Press | September 23, 2018

Michigan State football: Tyler O'Connor has advice for new punter Rocky Lombardi

Tyler O'Connor is revered by Michigan State fans for leading an improbable, upset win at Ohio State in 2015.

He's also "the other punter" from the Spartans' more shocking victory at Michigan a few games earlier.

The former MSU quarterback was the last player to punt other than Jake Hartbarger until the senior got injured in a 16-13 loss on Sept. 8 at Arizona State, knocking the punter out for the next 6 to 8 weeks.

MORE: Breaking down the quarterbacks in the Big Ten this season

When Hartbarger went down in Tempe, Ariz., coach Mark Dantonio did what he did with O'Connor: He turned to his backup quarterback to handle the punting duties. This time, redshirt freshman Rocky Lombardi will take over for Hartbarger, like O'Connor did three years ago under different circumstances.

"I think coach D's biggest thing was to put someone back there who is used to catching a snap," O'Connor said Thursday by phone from Chicago. "Someone that's not going to fumble the ball and get the ball off."

Disrupting stability

Punter has easily been the position with the least turnover during Dantonio's 12 years at MSU.

Three players -- Aaron Bates (2007-10), Mike Sadler (2011-14) and Hartbarger (2015-present) -- have held the position, though Sadler sat out senior day in 2011 against Indiana so backup Kyle Selden could get his three career punts in the 55-3 win. Selden also got in during the Spartans' blowout of Central Michigan earlier that year, but his one punt attempt was wiped out due to a roughing the punter penalty.

There wasn't a flag after Hartbarger got hit by an Arizona State player and suffered a leg injury when the helmet cracked into his shin with 5:14 to play.

RELATED: AP Top 25 FBS Poll

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound left-footed Lombardi came, rolled out to his left and booted 32-yard punt end over end to the Arizona State 21-yard line. The Sun Devils went on their final, game-winning drive after that, using up the rest of the clock.

"It was acceptable given the circumstances, I guess," Lombardi said Tuesday after practice.

O'Connor immediately flashed to his own experience. Even though he didn't realize Lombardi could punt until that moment, he thinks coaches will probably use the QB in a similar rollout fashion as they did with him three years ago.

"I'm sure they'll do some rugby-style things, because obviously hang time is not a backup quarterback's strongest suit," said O'Connor, who averaged 38.4 yards on his five punts in two games. "When you have Jake in there, you can hang the ball up there for 5 seconds every once in a while. I'm sure they'll try some things. And on top of that, it provides a threat for a fake, which coach D is obviously always interested in."

Something O'Connor knows all about.

Double duty

Now working in procurement for the Kraft Heinz Company, O'Connor served as starting quarterback for most of the Spartans' ill-fated 2016 season. However, MSU would not have made the College Football Playoffs a year earlier without O'Connor taking the bulk of the snaps for an injured Connor Cook and directing the game-winning field goal drive in a 17-14 win over the Buckeyes on Nov. 21, 2015 in Columbus, Ohio.

Listen to O'Connor talk about his performance against Ohio State in 2015: 

Yet that OSU game was not his first start. Technically, it came against the Wolverines -- at punter.

O'Connor, then a fourth-year junior, entered 2015 as redshirt freshman Hartbarger's backup. He even added the position to his name placard at MSU's media day that year, much like Sadler added running back to his a year earlier thanks to his penchant for running with the ball on fake punts and field-goal attempts.

But O'Connor's was much less of a joke.

"Back in high school, not many people know, I had more awards for punting than I did quarterback," O'Connor said. "I think coaches knew a little bit -- not that they cared a whole lot, because they probably never intended for me to ever punt at Michigan State."

RELATED: The longest overtime games in FBS college football history

O'Connor started working on punting late in the 2014 season, in case Sadler got hurt and so MSU would not have to burn Hartbarger's redshirt. That was when O'Connor got soccer cleats from the equipment staff, just in case.

Hartbarger, who took over after Sadler's graduation, battled catching long snaps in MSU's win at Purdue in 2015. A week later at Rutgers, he again struggled to pick one up that skipped off the turf.

Enter O'Connor, who had been working on rugby-style punting leading up to that game. Again, just in case.

The Spartans' first drive of the fourth quarter fizzled. O'Connor still had his headset on while standing on the sidelines when it happened.

ALSO: Heisman Trophy winners and runners-up each year since 1935

"We just got done calling plays, and they're telling me to go punt," he said. "So I rip off the headphones, find my helmet and run in there to go punt without really stretching."

It was fourth-and-6 at the Scarlet Knights' 44. O'Connor placed a 39-yard punt down at the Rutgers 5.

Not a bad first effort. And using advice he got from All-America teammate Sadler.

"Don't try to kick too hard is the one thing I would say (to Lombardi). I learned that from Sadler," O'Connor said. "Everyone knows Sadler didn't have the strongest leg, but it was more of an art than it was a power thing."

Place in history

That next week was the Michigan game, which ended with one of the biggest and most-replayed punting blunders in football history when, with 10 seconds left and the Wolverines ahead, U-M's Blake O'Neill had trouble with the snap. The ball popped free and was picked up by Michigan State's Jalen Watts-Jackson...

You know the rest. MSU scored the TD as time expired, a miraculous 27-23 victory.

And one in which O'Connor handled all of his snaps but was kicking to Michigan's extraordinary return man Jabril Peppers all day.

O'Connor's first punt, for 26 yards, was downed.

His second went 46 yards, and Peppers was dropped for a 2-yard loss.

His third went 41 yards, but Peppers nearly got it all back by returning it 34 yards.

Then came halftime. And the big ruse.

MSU went three-and-out on its first drive of the third quarter. At his own 31, O'Connor got the fourth-and-8 play call. A fake punt and run.

He made it 7 yards.

"We had scoped it out leading into the week," O'Connor remembered. "Even in that instance, it was precautionary -- never was it expected to be run. And then all of a sudden, it worked out that I could do the normal punts and I could also do some rugby punts. So it was more hidden than it normally would have been had I just come in."

The Wolverines used that short field to score a touchdown and go ahead 17-7.

'Pretty wild end'

Hartbarger took the next punt out of the MSU end zone, his only kick in the Michigan game. O'Connor got one more chance, booting it 40 yards into the end zone for a touchback with 6:41 left in the game and U-M ahead 23-21.

He and Cook were standing on the sideline with 10 seconds remaining, after MSU's final drive stalled and U-M ran the clock down as much as it could.

Then it happened.

"I definitely had a view," O'Connor said. "I was standing next to Connor, kind of consoling him to be honest with you. We're obviously still watching but we're not in a positive or optimistic mindset. And then even as it happened, Connor and I stood on the sidelines together. I remember seeing a replay, and we're kind of in disbelief, not running on the field yet because we were like, 'No, there has to be a penalty' or 'He stepped out of bounds' -- something like that. 'There's no way.'

"Then all of a sudden, we all just took off running. Pretty wild end to that one."

That win also gave O'Connor an anecdote about his college career that few will ever be able to match.

"My favorite thing to talk about with that game is I'm the least hated punter out of that game," O'Connor said with a laugh. "I know I didn't have a great average, but I didn't do anything to totally screw it up.

"Coach D's logic makes sense -- let's just get someone back there that knows how to catch the ball and punt it and get it out of there. I guess there's a lot more to it than people think until something like that happens."

And his advice to Lombardi?

"Don't drop the ball," O'Connor said with a chuckle.

This article is written by Chris Solari from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.