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Special Teams Breakdown: Iowa

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The Spartans look to continue to improve on special teams as they head into Big Ten play

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

After the disastrous performance against Western Michigan, the Spartans cleaned things up on special teams a little against Notre Dame. Now it’s on to the conference schedule, where games will be even tighter. Let’s see how they matchup with the Hawkeyes.

Place Kicking

MSU

We finally got to see Matt Coghlin kick a field goal last week against Notre Dame. It was a 40 yarder and he made it to start his career 1-for-1. He also remains perfect on extra points. Surely there will be more opportunities for Coghlin during Big Ten play, but for now it was at least good to see him get on the board last week in a tough primetime spot and knock one through the uprights.

Iowa

Miguel Recinos is the Iowa kicker, a junior in his first year as the primary kicker for the Hawkeyes. He started the season 3-for-3, including two 40+ yarders, before having his only attempt last week blocked. He is also a perfect 13-for-13 on extra points.

Recinos has seen action his first two years at Iowa, but only for a handful of total kicks. He was 1-for-3 in field goals last year and 2-for-2 on extra points as a freshman.

Despite being an upperclassman, there isn’t that much difference in the experience between Recinos and Coghlin. Given the total sample size, I don’t think either of them has an advantage over the other.

Punting

MSU

Another week and another solid performance from Jake Hartbarger. He only had three punt attempts, due in part to the offense’s continued turnover problems, but they were all solid. He averaged 49 yards per kick, including a 57 yarder. Now if there is a knock it is that two of those punts went into the end zone for touchbacks, and given the struggles the Irish had on punt returns coming in, it would have been nice to make them catch it inside their 20 or 10 yard lines.

Regardless, Hartbarger has been the lone bright spot on special teams for MSU, with his 44.87 yard punt average good for 23rd nationally. Traditionally when MSU and Iowa get together it is a tight and low scoring affair, so in true B1G fashion, punting becomes important. Hartbarger will need to continue to be on his game on Saturday.

Iowa

Sophomore Colten Rastetter, an Iowa farm boy name if there ever was one, is in his first year as the Hawkeyes punter. He is off to a solid start, averaging 40.32 yards per punt. His long of 53 came last week against Penn State.

Last week was a busy one for Rastetter, as he was called on seven times, including on five of Iowa’s first six possessions (the other ended in a safety). He averaged 41.1 yards per kick, including two over 50 yards and two inside the 20 yard line. However, he also had four punts under 40 yards, with two of those giving Penn State the ball on the Iowa side of the field.

I’ll give Michigan State the edge here with Hartbarger, as he has been more consistent overall. But it would probably really help if he can drop a few of those coffin corner kicks inside the 20, rather than banging them through the end zone.

Return Game

MSU

There were no punt return attempts for the Spartans against Notre Dame last week as Laress Nelson had a couple of fair catches and that was it. This continues to be an area where MSU is getting absolutely zero production, but if you aren’t given any real chances, there’s only so much you can do.

As for kick returns, Michigan State averaged 26.5 yards per return, with Darrell Stewart taking three of them, and Andre Welch getting one. Stewart had the long of the day with a 32 yarder. Nothing spectacular here, as the Spartans remain solid (36th nationally), but unremarkable.

The MSU returners will face a tough test this week, as Iowa is ranked 10th in the country in kickoff return yardage, holding teams to an average of 15.85 yards per return. They are even stingier on punt returns, where they have only allowed two punts to be returned for a total of four yards.

Iowa

Much like the Spartans, Iowa has used a couple different players at the punt return spot this year. Matt VandeBurg started the season with three returns against Wyoming, averaging a solid 12. 3 yards per return, including a 23 yarder. But since then it has been Josh Jackson who has the only return attempts. Jackson has had one punt return try in each of the last three games and they have gone for four, 17, and four yards respectively.

On the kickoffs it has also been split duty, with Ivory Kelly-Martin and Akrum Wadley both getting in on the action. Kelly-Martin has seven returns and is averaging 21.43 yards, while Wadley has four returns at a 25 yard per return clip. Their team average of 22.73 yards is good for 45th overall.

The numbers for MSU’s kick coverage will continue to remain grim until they slow things down. They currently rank 123rd out of 129 teams allowing 29.75 yards per return. That is second worse for any team with at least 10 kickoffs, the only worse is Miami(OH) who has already allowed two kickoff returns for touchdowns.

The return game shouldn’t play a huge factor as neither team has been very explosive this year, and if there was ever a week to get the coverage back on track, it’s this one.

Overall

This looks like a pretty even special teams matchup. Both kickers are relatively inexperienced, the punters have been solid, neither team has much of a punt return game and both have been good but not great on kickoff returns. The one real difference is Iowa has been great covering kicks, while MSU has been bad.

With all that, the biggest role that special teams might play on Saturday is determining field position. In that area, Iowa has been better. The Hawkeyes rank 5th among Big Ten teams starting an average of 67.74 yards away from the end zone, our their own 32.26 yard line. Michigan State, is 12th in the B1G, starting 70.23 yards from pay dirt (their own 29.77).

This one feels like a toss-up, and may come down to whichever place kicker has a better day.