After a one week hiatus last week, the special teams breakdown has returned as we prepare for what turns out to be the biggest game of the season. Last week gave us the first game winning field goal for freshman kicker Matt “McMuffin” Coghlin. Hopefully it won’t be the last of his Spartan tenure.
This week the Spartans head to the horseshoe, which was the site of the last MSU game winning field goal as time expired. So let’s get right into it.
It was a redemption week for Matt Coghlin against Penn State. Of course we all know he hit the game winning kick, but he also made one early in the fourth quarter that tied the game up, before the heroics of the final kick. For his efforts he was named the Big Ten special teams player of the week.
This all coming a week after he missed two of his three attempts, including missing a 32 yarder by banging it off the upright. The Spartans of course lost the game in overtime, making those missed kicks loom even larger.
For the season Coghlin is now 9-for-13 for a nice 69.2% rate. He remains perfect on extra points, making all 26 so far.
Seeing him make the big kicks against Penn State after his struggles the week before was a very positive sign and should do plenty for his confidence going forwards. I saw some calls for him to lose his job after the Northwestern game, which was completely ridiculous. My guess is those same people were tweeting videos of his slip and slide celebration after the game last week with a little taste of crow in their mouths. McMuffin is here to stay.
Sean Nuernberger is a junior in his fourth year with the Buckeyes. He missed all of last season with an injury that allowed him to maintain junior eligibility this year. He won the kicking job as a true freshman, before losing out the following season in camp, but regained the job at the end of the year.
He is currently 10-of-12 on the year for OSU, and a perfect 48-48 on extra points. For his career he is 26-for-36 (72.2%) on field goals and has never missed an extra point in 154 attempts.
Jake Hartbarger continues to be one of the unsung heroes for the Michigan State football team. He has been called upon 51 times this year (26th most nationally) and has been excellent almost every time.
Last week he punted six times, three of those went for 40+ yards. The three that didn’t were downed at the 8, the 20, and the 4 yard lines. He did not allow a return.
In fact the combination of Hartbarger and the punt coverage unit has allowed only eight returns all season. That is a mere 15.7% return rate. Those eight returns have yielded a total of 26 yards.
Hartbarger continues to flip the field when necessary, and pin teams deep when he can. The Spartans have had many fewer three and outs this year, so even on drives that stall outside of scoring range, Hartbarger is more often than not able to pin teams in deep. That, combined with the improved defense, has been a key to keeping teams off the scoreboard. They have to string together long drives and it’s just not easy to do against this MSU defense.
Sophomore Drue Chrisman is in his first year as the Buckeyes punter. He has been called upon 27 times this year and is averaging 42.70 yards per punt. The most times he has punted in a game this year is six, as opposed to Hartbarger who is averaging 5.6 punts per game.
The stats are pretty consistent for him, and Ohio State gets top notch players at every position, so why should punter be any different.
The return game for MSU seems to have solidified itself, at least in terms of the personnel. Connor Heyward handled all the kickoff returns for the third straight game, and Cody White handled the punt return duties without incident.
Heyward averaged an even 25 yards on four kickoff returns, with a long of 28 yards. He is now averaging 27.1 yards per kickoff return and leads the team with 10 attempts.
Despite not having any real explosive returns this year, the Spartan kickoff return unit has been steady enough to check in at 31st in the country for return average, despite the revolving door at the position. Heyward has looked pretty good back there, and while I don’t know that he is ever going to break one for a score, he has the look of someone that can consistently be a threat to bring it back 30+ yards.
Ohio State has been pretty good in kickoff coverage, ranking 34th in opponent return average, but they have also allowed two touchdowns. They are the only team in the top-70 in kick coverage to allow multiple kickoff return TD’s so far this year.
White had just one punt return attempt for two yards. He is now one of three players with at least six punt returns. He is also the one of the six who has been the least productive in that regard. However, the coaching staff seems to trust White more to make the right decision back there, and that is probably more important to them than explosiveness right now.
It should also be noted that MSU did a great job last week containing Saquon Barkley as a returner. He had just two kickoff returns for 15 yards. This is a guy that came in averaging over 34 yards per return with a pair of touchdowns. For a group that has had its struggles this year, that was a huge win for MSU.
The Buckeyes have had six players return a kick this year, with three different players having at least six returns. Parris Campbell has the most returns (9) and the best return average (36.56) of those players. Campbell missed last week’s game with a head injury, but is cleared to return for this weekend’s game.
As a whole, the Buckeyes have the 14th best kick return average (25.52) in the country, although they have not returned one for a touchdown.
On the punt return side, K.J. Hill has been the main guy for Ohio State this year. Hill has 12 returns and is averaging four yards per return. The Buckeyes rank 108th in punt return average, which is still better than MSU by more than a yard.
Either way, I wouldn’t expect much in the punt return game for either team this week.
These two teams look pretty even on paper as far as special teams go. We certainly know that games between these two teams can come down to a late field goal, and either of these kickers is capable of making the game winner.
The only other way I see the special teams playing a big role is if one team makes a big mistake, like giving up a big return, turning it over, a block, something like that. Michigan State has been more apt to do that this year, and given the battle they face, they really need a clean special teams game again this week.
We saw last week that this special teams group can be a positive for the Spartans, hopefully they can build on that this week in Columbus.