It was another mixed bag last week for the Michigan State special teams. Positive signs in the return game and the place kicking were accompanied by another big gaffe that set up an opponent’s score. It feels like it is taking some time, but that hopefully by the end of the year they will have it figured out. However, they have to stop making the really big mistakes. On to the preview.
Matt “McMuffin/McLovin” Coghlin had the most productive game of his career last week, getting more attempts than he had in the first five games combined. He knocked through his first three attempts of the game, from 42, 35, and 25 yards, before missing his last one from 45 yards late in the fourth quarter.
It was a solid game for the freshman kicker, in less than ideal conditions. He is now 5-for-7 on field goals and a perfect 17-for-17 on extra points. Despite the limited work up until last week, he didn’t have any problem stepping up and making some kicks. The attempt late in the game was a tough miss, and quite frankly I wasn’t sure they should have even attempted it in the first place.
While we still don’t know how Coghlin will perform if he needs to make a big kick late in the game, I think we are starting to see that he is going to be pretty solid most of the time and close to automatic from inside of 40 yards.
For the Hoosiers, Griffin Oakes has been a constant at place kicker for the last four years. He is the all-time leader in made field goals in school history, and was the Big Ten’s kicker of the year as a sophomore in 2015. He is 60-for-81 in his career, and 130-136 on extra points.
He is 7-for-8 this year, with three makes over 45 yards. His lone miss came last week against Michigan when the Wolverines blocked a 51 yard try. Oakes sent the game to overtime when he made a 46 yarder as time expired in regulation. Michigan State fans may recall Oakes did something similar last year against the Spartans before hitting the game winner in overtime.
Hopefully it doesn’t come down to the leg of Griffin Oakes this time around, because he is one of the better kickers in the league, and MSU already knows he can hit a game winner.
Jake Hartbarger only punted twice last week, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He mishandled the snap after the offense went three-and-out on their opening possession. He was lucky that all that came of it was a Minnesota field goal.
As far as his two kicks, one was 48 yarder that went for a touchback and the other was a short 24 yarder that would have pinned Minnesota inside their own 20 if not for a kick catch interference penalty. That turned a 24 yard punt into a net of nine yards.
That is two considerable mistakes by the punting unit in only three total attempts. Not exactly what you want to see from a group that has been pretty good overall this year. I know conditions were not great, and this group has been the most consistent of the special teams groups this year, so we won’t get on them too much. Hopefully we get a better performance this week in what should be much better game conditions.
Haydon Whitehead is the Hoosier punter, his first season in the role. The sophomore is averaging 40.98 yards per punt, ranking him 72nd in the country, a few spots below Hartbarger. However, he is averaging about two more punts per game than Hartbarger. In fact, his 44 punts rank seventh in the country and he is 10th in total punting yards. So he has been busy.
Whitehead has a long of 56 yards this year, and has bombed a couple other 50 yarders as well. He has at least five punts in every game this year, and I expect him to be busy again on Saturday.
Last week the Spartans turned to Connor Heyward for return duties. The freshman from Georgia was the latest player to get a shot at return duties, after Laress Nelson had some issues fielding punts against Michigan the previous week.
Heyward responded with the best game for a returner for MSU this year, averaging 38.3 yards per kick return and posting the longest return of the year, a 55 yarder that ended with Heyward running over a player as he went out of bounds. It was an impressive finish to a run, and something his late father, Craig “Iron Head” Heyward would certainly have appreciated.
We keep asking if the Spartans have found their next kick returner, and maybe that question was finally answered this week. Any positive in the return game would be a big boost to MSU’s special teams, as they have gotten limited to no production from that aspect for most of the season.
Indiana has not been a great team on kickoff coverage, allowing 23.64 yards per return, 107th in the country. They have also given up a kick return touchdown. Now they do boast a 58.06% touchback rate, good for 35th overall, so they face an average of less than two return attempts per game.
The kickoff return game hasn’t been kind to the Hoosiers. Indiana checks in at 118th in the country in kick return average at just 16.88 yards per return. Devonte Williams has gotten the bulk of the attempts, averaging a mere 16.47 yards on 15 tries.
Now punt returns, that is a different story. Indiana ranks seventh in the nation in punt return average at 19 yards per return. That is because J-Shun Harris is one of the most lethal punt returners in the country. His 23.27 yard return average is second overall, and he is one of just five punt returners with multiple returns for touchdowns.
The good news for Michigan State is that they have done a good job limiting return attempts, with only five total punt returns against them for the season. They were able to keep Darius Phillips from attempting a punt return earlier this year, and will likely employ a similar strategy this week against Harris.
Indiana has a solid special teams unit overall. Oakes is one of the best kickers in the conference, and Whitehead has been very solid punting the ball this year. They haven’t done well with kick returns, but Harris has the ability to break one at any time in the punt return game. For a team that has its issues at times on offense and defense, the special teams group is pretty steady for the Hoosiers.
The Spartans continue to move in the right direction, but like we talked about, need to find a way to avoid making the one big mistake per game. If they can do that, the special teams can go from being a question mark at the beginning of the year, to one of the positives by the end of it. I really am interested to see if Heyward can have another impressive game, as no one has really been able to string together two straight solid return games for MSU this year.
We will call this one mostly a draw, with a maybe the arrow slightly favoring Indiana because of Harris and Oakes. If MSU has a problem this week, it will be because of one of those two.