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Special Teams Breakdown: Michigan

Taking a look at the special teams match up with some help from the late Tom Petty

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

Well we are now just a day away from this year’s battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy. The wait is almost over, and of course, the waiting is the hardest part. So let’s breakdown and go ahead and give it to you, this week’s look at the special teams units.

Place Kicking

Matt Coghlin set a new career high for field goal attempts last week with two. He made one of the two, connecting from 38 yards in the first half, and then missing from 48 yards out early in the fourth quarter. He is now 2-for-3 on the season, but still a perfect 12-for-12 on extra points.

The one he missed looked like it had plenty of leg, but just drifted wide. I expect Dantonio won’t back down from continuing to send Coghlin out to attempt 40+ yarders, and he might need to this week against a Michigan defense that has allowed the fewest trips into the red zone this season.


Sophomore Quinn the Eskimo Nordin has been a weapon for Jim Harbaugh’s squad. He is 11-for-13 on field goal attempts this year, and has connected on his last seven straight. He hit a pair of 50+ yarders in the season opener, including one from 55 yards out.

We saw in Michigan’s win over Florida that they can win a game with basically just their defense and Nordin’s leg if need be, even if they got lucky and survived two pick-sixes.


An argument could be made that the MVP of the Iowa win for Michigan State was punter Jake “listen to your” Hartbarger. He had five punts on the day, and here is what they did:

- 50 yards fair caught at the Iowa nine yard line

- 37 yards fair caught at the Iowa eight yard line

- 32 yards fair caught at the Iowa eight yard line

- 33 yards fair caught at the Iowa seven yard line

- 41 yards out of bounds at Iowa 16 yard line

That is four punts inside the 10 and one more inside the 20, which would have been a fifth inside the 10, had MSU not committed a penalty for illegal formation.

Two of those punts pinning the Hawkeyes in deep led to scoring drives after the defense forced a three-and-out and set the MSU offense up in Iowa territory.

With this weekend’s game possibly shaping up similar to the Iowa game, the Spartans will need to see a lot more of this from Jake Hartbarger to help out the offense with some favorable field position.


Sophomore Will Hart started the season as Michigan’s punter, drawing all the work through the first three games of the year. However, he was averaging just 37.92 yards per punt. Perhaps as a result of those struggles, Harbaugh felt it was time to move on and freshman Brad Robbins took over the punting duties in UM’s last game out against Purdue. Robbins punted seven times in that game, averaging 40.57 yards per kick. Of those seven just one was inside the 20 yard line, with two others at the 20 and 21 yard lines.

It wasn’t a fantastic performance by Robbins but he didn’t have any shanks and he was solid enough in a game where both teams struggled to move the ball early on and field position was important.

Still, the edge here is clearly to Michigan State, as Hartbarger has been about as good as it gets so far this year.

Return Game

After not getting much production in the return game early in the season, MSU seems to have switched up some of their return personnel. Laress Nelson once again handled the primary punt return duties, and had a nice little 11 yard return on his first attempt that set MSU up at the Iowa 31 on a drive that ended with a touchdown. Nelson has taken the punt return game to a higher place since he’s been in there, and I expect him to keep the job barring any major catastrophes.

The Spartans had just one kickoff return attempt against Iowa and it was Andre Welch taking the ball for a 25 yard return. That was his second return attempt of the season, and his 26 yard average is right in line with what Stewart has done.

Like everything defensively this year, Michigan has been quite stingy when it comes to covering kicks. They are 14th in the country in opponent kickoff returns, allowing just 15.89 yards per return. On punts they are holding returners to a measly 2.8 yards per return.


The Spartans face another of the country’s more dangerous return men this week in Donovan Peoples-Jones. DPJ is currently 13th in the country averaging 14.73 yards per return, and has already taken one back for a touchdown.

Now the Spartans have been pretty good overall on punt coverage, mostly because Hartbarger has only allowed two punts to be returned all year. Expect him to look to do the same this week and keep Peoples-Jones from breaking into the great wide open on a big return.

Now kickoff returns, that has been a different story. Michigan is averaging just 17.63 yards per kickoff return this year, with Kekoa Crawford getting the bulk of the work. That puts them at 105th in the country in kickoff return average and is clearly not one of their strengths, although teams aren’t kicking off to them all that often.

The Spartans gave up another 35 yard return last week to Iowa, before choosing to kick short several times for reasons that I still don’t quite understand. I would hope that the plan this week is to kick it deep, seeing as there is no real threat back there. However, there is always the possibility that Harbaugh throws Peoples-Jones back there to try and get something going, especially since MSU has struggled in their kickoff coverage.


Michigan has a clear advantage at place kicker, punt returner, and in their coverage units. Michigan State the advantage at punter, and I will probably call the kick returners a push. Overall I think the Wolverines have the edge when it comes to special teams. But, then again, the Spartans played a pretty poor special teams game the last time they were in Ann Arbor. That is until this…

Oh well, I’m sure Michigan fans will just say that even the losers get lucky sometimes.