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Special Teams Breakdown: Minnesota

The Gophers kicking game is strong, led by last year’s B1G Kicker of the Year.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it wasn’t exactly a pretty performance from a special teams perspective last week in Ann Arbor, but they did enough to get the job done. The conditions obviously played a role so I don’t know if we can really learn all that much or put too much stock into any mistakes. Still, there were mistakes and some of them could have been costly. It would be nice for the special teams to put together a clean game sometime, where there isn’t at least one “oh come on” type of play.

Maybe that week is this week as the Spartans travel north to take on Minnesota. Conditions may be wet and nasty again, so it will probably serve MSU well to have had the experience they got last week.

Place Kicking

Another week without a field goal attempt for Matt Coghlin. That makes three of the five games where MSU hasn’t attempted a field goal. Part of this is good news, as the Spartans are converting more red zone possessions into touchdowns. Part of it is that they just aren’t getting into the red zone all that often. Given the second half conditions last week, they probably weren’t going to attempt anything longer than an extra point length field goal. Depending on how the conditions are this week, they might employ a similar mindset.

Minnesota: Junior kicker Emmit Carpenter is in his second year as the Gophers kicker. He is 7-for-10 this year with a long of 49 yards. He’s actually got four field goals from 40+ yards so far this year. Last year he was excellent, making 22-of-24 field goals and 43-of-44 extra points and being named the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year. His 85.3% conversion rate ranks as the best in Minnesota history.

Carpenter is obviously a good kicker and a nice weapon for the Gophers, who have struggled to move the ball consistently on offense. However, if Carpenter is the bulk of Minnesota’s offense on Saturday, MSU will be in good shape.


Jake Hartbarger had a busy day in Ann Arbor last week punting the ball 11 times, with seven of those coming in the second half. He averaged 39.1 yards per punt, with a long of 49 yards. He dropped four of those punts inside the Michigan 20 yard line, with two other touchbacks. He only allowed three returnable punts by the dangerous Donovan Peoples-Jones, which netted a total of six yards.

Given the conditions and the inability of the MSU offense to move the ball in the second half, Hartbarger had a really nice game. He did have one shank late in the first half after a false start penalty but that was really the only hiccup. Hartbarger remains a key to Michigan State controlling the field position game and making teams have to string together long drives against their defense in order to come away with points. Given Minnesota’s issues on offense, I expect MSU to continue their “punt to win” strategy this week.

Minnesota: Senior Ryan Santoso is in his second year as the primary punter for the Gophers. He is averaging 44.41 yards per punt, good for 21st in the country in that department. He was previously Minnesota’s place kicker for his first two years, before taking over the punting duties last year.

His career punting average is 41.6 yards and his career long of 64 yards came earlier this year against Middle Tennessee State.

Santoso also serves as the kickoff specialist for Minnesota, so it’s pretty obvious that he has a good leg. It’s not often you see a guy go from being a place kicker to a punter after two seasons, but Santoso has made the transition pretty seamlessly. Much like Hartbarger, he has been a weapon in terms of flipping the field.

Return Game

Once again the Michigan State return game was more of a negative than anything else. Laress Nelson was handling the punt returns again, and had a good one in the first half of 10 yards. But unfortunately the negatives outweighed the positives.

The big blow was a muffed punt that he was barely able to recover back at the MSU two yard line. The bad field position, plus the ensuing three-and-out set up Michigan’s lone touchdown drive of the game. Nelson also had one go through his hands along the sideline that then bounced out of bounds.

The conditions were obviously a factor, but Nelson needs to know better than to try and catch the ball once he realizes he has misjudged it and it was going over his head. That is a youth mistake that I doubt he will ever make again. Despite the issues last week, Nelson has still shown the most explosiveness in the punt return game. Minnesota is a middle of the road team on punt coverage, giving up 6.71 yards per return. Nelson might got a couple chances this week to make a positive impact, hopefully he can take advantage.

MSU only had one kickoff return last week and it was a disaster. Andre Welch served as the returner and brought it out from about the two, only to run more east to west than north to south. He was taken out of bounds around the 11 yard line, which would have been bad enough, but a holding penalty backed them up even farther. This started the disastrous field position issue that would eventually end with Michigan getting a very short field for their only touchdown drive.

We will see if MSU rolls with Welch again, or goes back to Stewart this week against a Minnesota coverage unit that ranks 83rd in the country, allowing a 21 yard average return. The Gophers have 12 touchbacks in 29 kickoffs this year, but have also had three kickoffs go out of bounds.

Minnesota: The Golden Gophers have had issues of their own on punt returns. They are currently 116th in the country in punt return average at just 2.75 yards per return. They have tried three different returners, with KJ Mayne having the most success with a 10 yard average, albeit on just three attempts.

Only five of Hartbarger’s 31 punts have been returned this year (16%), and those five returns have only yielded a total of 16 yards. Without fear of a dangerous returner on the other end, Hartbarger should be free to boom some big ones and try and pin the Gophers deep without trying to avoid the returners.

On kick returns Minnesota is a little better, checking in at 53rd overall with an average of 21.80 yards per return. Once again they have deployed a variety of returners, with six different players having at least one return. KiAnte Hardin and Jalen Myrick have gotten the most chances with 11 and 12 respectively. Hardin has averaged 24.27 yards, while Myrick is at 21.42 yards per return.

The Spartans coverage team once again allowed a kickoff return of 30 plus yards last week. But they did get a touchback on the opening kick (wind aided) and held the first UM return to 14 yards, pinning the Wolverines inside their 15 yard line. Overall their kickoff coverage remains one of the worst in the country (119th). Combine this with the 99th average kickoff distance and the 121st touchback percentage and this remains a major issue for MSU on special teams. While I don’t expect Minnesota to be a team that can take full advantage of this, any extra yards teams get in special teams are just less distance they have to try and get against MSU’s stellar defense.


This feels pretty even. Both teams have similar strengths and weaknesses in their special teams units. The only real advantage might be for Minnesota with Carpenter, although again it is so hard to judge that because even five games in, we just don’t have a real sample size for Coghlin. I don’t think the special teams end up playing a huge factor in this game, unless the MSU offense really struggles and Minnesota ends up keeping it close with a slew of field goals. As stated at the top, it would just be nice to see MSU play a clean game on special teams.