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Special Teams Breakdown: Northwestern

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Both the Spartans and Wildcats feature young kickers and veteran punters.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

While there was plenty to take umbrage with on the offensive side of the ball last week, the other two phases played about as well as you could ask for. The defense was once again stellar, not allowing a touchdown. While the special teams played maybe their cleanest game of the season. No major mistakes this week, which is a big step in the right direction. On to the preview.

Place Kicking

For a while it looked like Matt Coghlin’s 23 yard field goal in the first half was going to make up all of the Michigan State points on the day. Luckily the offense woke up just in the nick of time and the Spartans escaped with the win. As for McLovin/McMuffin, he is now a solid 6-for-8 on the season on field goals and remains perfect on extra points. Without having been called upon too often, he has done about as much as you can ask to this point.

If the offense continues to struggle to string long drives together, there is a good chance we will see more than one field goal try this weekend in Evanston.

Northwestern

The place kicking situation is similar for the Wildcats, with freshman Charlie Kuhbander handling the kicking duties. Kuhbander was one of the top kicking recruits in the country, and has shown why this year. He is 7-for-8 on the year in field goals and a perfect 22-for-22 on extra points. His long on the season is from 40 yards.

Very similar numbers for the two young kickers that will be featured in this game.

Punting

Once again Jake Hartbarger was called on early and often. And once again, the Spartan punter turned in another solid performance. He averaged 46.3 yards per punt, placing three inside the 20 yard line, two of those inside the ten. He also had another one that ended up inside the 20 following an Indiana penalty.

His first punt, went 62 yards and was downed at the Indiana one yard line.

The punting game has become a very big part of the Michigan State strategy this year. The Spartan defense is sixth in the nation allowing just 19.86 yards per possession. They are one of only seven teams to be averaging less than one first down allowed per possession. So punt it and make the other team string together first downs in order to score. Hartbarger has, for the most part, done the job of pinning the other team deep and flipping the field when needed. It may not always be sexy, but punt to win has been a sound strategy for MSU thus far.

Northwestern

Senior Hunter Niswander is in his third season as the Wildcats primary punter. He is currently enjoying his best season in terms of average punt distance, at 43.5 yards per punt. His career average is 41.8 yards per punt. According to the NU website he has dropped eight punts inside the 20 this year and has 10 punts of 50+ yards. Much like Hartbarger he is a solid, veteran punter.

Return Game

Another week, another name change atop the depth chart in the return game. This week it is Cody White taking over as the team’s primary punt returner…at least to start the game. Last week it was Connor Heyward, then Laress Nelson, and then White getting a shot at returning punts. None of them had much success with just nine total yards on four returns.

At this point it appears that decision making and sure hands are the most important qualities the staff is looking for in the return game. Although, if you are only allowed one bad decision on fielding a punt in order to get benched, I’m not sure that is a particularly helpful strategy either.

Meanwhile, Heyward remains the top guy on the kickoff return list, so at least they seem to want to roll with him for another game there.

It would be nice for MSU to find some level of consistency in the return game. It feels like a spot where the more chances you get, the better and more confident you become. The spot has been such a revolving door this year that it’s hard to get a feel for how well any of the players have really done.

White is now the fourth different player to return a punt this year, while five different players have returned kickoffs, although that includes Noah Davis, who got a return as an upback on a short kick. At some point, you would hope they find a guy and stick with it. As I said on twitter, we are getting to the point where it might just be easier to name the guys that aren’t going to get a shot at returning kicks this year.

For what it’s worth, Northwestern has not been a great punt coverage team. They come in at 80th nationally, allowing 8.42 yards per return in 12 returns. They have allowed returns on 34% of their punts, whereas MSU has allowed returns on only 19.5% of their punts.

Northwestern

The Wildcats have used two players on punt returns, both with four returns each. Riley Lees has averaged 7.25 yards on his four returns, while Flynn Nagel has averaged 3.50 yards per return. Their combined average of 5.38 yards per return puts Northwestern at 90th nationally, which is still 22 spots higher than MSU.

Four different players have returned kickoffs for Northwestern, but John Moten and Nagel are the only ones with multiple returns. Moten has averaged 16.78 yards per return on nine chances while Nagel has had seven returns with an average of 19.57 yards. Once again, their combined total of 17.72 yards per return is not good, ranking 111th in the country.

Michigan State did a good job last week with J-Shun Harris on punts, allowing just three returns for 10 yards. The kickoff coverage unit was also solid in minimal chances, allowing a 30 yard return, and a 25 yarder. I don’t expect this to be a problem area this week either.

Overall

The two teams are eerily similar in their special teams units. They both have rookie kickers, veteran punters, and not much going in the return game. For MSU the key is once again not to make a big mistake. If they can manage that, then the special teams can really be a positive for them, especially in a game where field position will likely play a big role considering that both team’s offenses have struggled.

I’ll give the edge to the Spartans because I think Hartbarger has been that good, and maybe this is the game where White steps up and takes hold of the punt return job by breaking a big one.