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Position Breakdown: Special Teams

In what should be a close game, the difference may come down to special teams.

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

During the bye week we got into the details on the struggles of the MSU special teams through two games this year, and how many of these issues are not something unique to this year, but the last several years. So we won’t spend too much time rehashing the problems. Instead we will focus on the matchup with Notre Dame and if there is any area where one team may have a distinct advantage.

In a game that many expect to be the biggest challenge of the season so far for Michigan State, special teams play could be the difference. It certainly was when Mark Dantonio called for a fake field goal in overtime in 2010.

Place Kicking

Is this the week that Matt Coghlin attempts his first field goal for Michigan State? Chances are good that he will be called upon to do so, as Notre Dame’s red zone defense is holding teams to a 50/50 split on touchdowns and field goals so far this year. Hopefully he gets a chance at one early in the game so that he can get his feet wet in case he is called upon in the waning moments of the game to deliver a game tying or winning kick.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a much more experienced kicker in Justin Yoon. The junior is in his third season as the primary kicker in South Bend. He is an 80% field goal kicker for his career, and is off to a 4-for-6 start this year. He’s 15-for-15 on extra points through three games and 109-for-113 overall.

Yoon missed his first two kicks of the year against Temple, but rebounded to go 4-for-4 against Georgia. He did not attempt a field goal in last week’s win over Boston College.

His long on the season is 42 yards and his career long is 52 yards, which came in his freshman season against Navy.

Notre Dame definitely has the edge in the place kicking game, thanks to an experienced and quality kicker.


As we have mentioned before, Jake Hartbarger is about the best thing going for MSU on special teams. While his 43.83 yards per punt ranks a solid 37th nationally, he’s really performed better than that. He’s pinned teams in deep, and most importantly, only allowed one punt return attempt. This is especially important when we remember who he was punting to last game.

While it still hasn’t quite translated to overall field position success, Hartbarger has been pretty consistent. Other than one shank while trying to avoid Darius Phillips last week, all of Hartbarger’s kicks have either flipped the field, or pinned the opponent inside their 20 yard line.

Setting up a long field for the Irish will be important, as the Irish average 31.56 yards per drive, almost identical to what the Spartans average. Field position will be of critical importance.

Notre Dame: The Irish also have an experienced leg for a punter with senior Tyler Newsome. This is the third year as primary punter for Newsome, who is averaging 47.28 yards per punt, good for seventh nationally. His career average of 44.4 yards per punt ranks second all-time at Notre Dame.

In last year’s game in South Bend, Newsome boomed three 50+ yarders against the Spartans. His long on the season this year is currently 59 yards, which came against Georgia. He also had a 57 yarder last week against Boston College.

This looks to be close to a toss-up between Hartbarger and Newsome, although Newsome has a slightly more consistent track record. The warm conditions should make for some good kicking conditions, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both punters pound out a few 50-yarders.

Return Game

Again, we talked last week about the return game, and the struggles in the coverage for MSU. We also looked at Darrell Stewart and decided that while he has been very solid in the kickoff return department, he has had his struggles returning punts. Despite a solid showing by Laress Nelson against Western, Stewart is still listed atop the depth chart as both the kickoff and punt returner. Despite that designation, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Nelson get a shot, especially if Stewart struggles or shows a lack of decisiveness again.

Notre Dame: While MSU uses Stewart for both return scenarios, Notre Dame uses a specialist for each. At kickoffs they have junior C.J. Sanders, who has filled the role for the past two seasons. For his career Sanders is averaging 23.76 yards per return with three touchdowns. This year he is averaging an even 22 yards per return and has yet to find the end zone.

The fact that he has four career return touchdowns (3 KO, 1 punt) should be enough to worry Spartan fans. Hopefully, the staff has learned their lesson and will either try and avoid Sanders, or will have worked on cleaning up the kick coverage over the last two weeks. Boston College was able to keep Sanders from even attempting a return last week, so hopefully the MSU coaches took some notes on that.

Even though Sanders served as the primary punt returner in 2015, and split duties last year, this year the Irish have gone exclusively with Chris Finke at punt returner. It hasn’t gone great. He’s got two total yards on eight return attempts. Yes, that is an average of one quarter of a yard per return. I’m not even sure how this is possible because if he just fell forwards eight times he should have more return yards than that.

This also looks like a toss-up as both teams have struggled to get much of anything in the punt return game, while having done an okay job on kickoffs. Notre Dame might get the edge because of Sanders’ track record.


Once again, we don’t need to get into what happened against Western here, except to say it needs to get better. Michigan State is currently 86th in kickoffs with an average of 61.45 yards per kick. They have gotten just two touchbacks on 11 kickoffs, for an 18.18 touchback percentage, 111th nationally. I understand that Brett Scanlon is the experienced kicker, but if he can’t do better than this, it might be worth exploring other options.

Notre Dame: The Irish meanwhile, come in at 67th nationally with a 62.27 yard kickoff average. They have also struggled to kick the ball deep, with only seven touchbacks on 22 kicks for a 31.82 touchback percentage (89th overall).

Justin Yoon has averaged 63.26 yards with all seven touchbacks on 19 kickoffs. Meanwhile freshman Jonathan Doerer has averaged just 56 yards on three kicks, including one out of bounds.

The Irish have also struggled with kickoff coverage, as they rank 104th in the country allowing an average return of 23.79 yards.

Despite an easy win last week, Notre Dame started eight yards worse than Boston College in possessions that began after a kickoff or punt.


Both these teams have had field position issues so far this year, with Notre Dame’s average starting spot being about the 31 yard line, and Michigan State’s being just inside their own 30 yard line.

Both school’s feature solid, veteran punters, who are off to very good starts this year.

The big difference really comes down to the place kickers. Notre Dame has the experienced kicker, who has made 80% of his 40 career field goal attempts, while MSU has a red-shirt freshman who is yet to attempt a field goal through his first two games.

I will give the edge to Notre Dame overall, but I don’t think it is a huge one. Yoon is a weapon, and Sanders has explosive potential, and that is more than the Spartans can say for now. With that being said, this could be a great week for MSU to get their special teams in order with ND coming off a game where they had five TOTAL return yards.

And you never know what Dantonio might have up his sleeve. Brian Lewerke is the primary holder after all…