Last week we got our first look at a bunch of new players on the Michigan State special teams unit. As we discussed last week, pretty much everyone outside of punter Jake Hartbarger is new this year. While it is important to remember that it was just one week and against Bowling Green, the special teams performance was a positive one for the Spartans.
So let’s break it down and also take a look at how the Western Michigan special teams unit stacks up.
We didn’t learn a whole lot from last week’s game about new Spartan kicker Matt Coghlin, mostly because he didn’t attempt a field goal. He did bang through all five of his extra points without incident, so that is a plus. Kicking conditions will once again be favorable this week in East Lansing, and I am guessing we will probably get at least one field goal attempt.
Freshman Josh Grant won the kicking job this fall beating out redshirt junior Austin Regan. The Texas native made one of two field goals in the Broncos opener against USC, connecting from 43 yards out, but missing a 38 yarder. He also made all four of his extra points.
Jake Hartbarger had himself a very solid day against Bowling Green. He punted six times and averaged 49 yards per kick, including a long of 57 yards. Three of those punts pinned Bowling Green inside their own 20, including one inside the ten.
If there was a negative it’s that two of the punts went into the endzone for touchbacks.
But you will take almost 50 yards per punt any day. Bowling Green also only attempted one return for 10 yards, and they were still brought down inside their own 20 yard line.
If Hartbarger can continue to punt like that, he will really be a weapon for Michigan State in the field position battle as the year wears on.
Junior Derek Mitchell takes over the punting duties by himself this year after splitting time last season. Against USC Mitchell punted five times, averaging 44 yards, including a 58 yard bomb. He dropped three of those punts inside the USC twenty.
However, he also had a 22 yard shank early in the 4th quarter which set USC up at their own 44, leading to a Trojan touchdown drive.
Overall though it was a solid performance from Mitchell against a tough opponent on the road.
Darrell Stewart made his debut as the new return specialist last week and it was a very good one. Really Stewart was great overall last week, leading the team with six catches for 85 yards, as well as serving as the primary kick returner.
In the return game Stewart fielded one kickoff return, bringing it out 22 yards and setting MSU up at their own 34 yard line.
Stewart attempted three punt returns, averaging five yards per return with a long of ten. Nothing phenomenal, but Stewart didn’t take any stupid chances and showed a little bit of the skillset that could make him a dangerous return man. We also saw some of the shiftiness on display in the receiving game as well.
Now if there is one area that Michigan State needs to be ready for when it comes to the Western Michigan special teams, it is containing Darius Phillips.
Spartan fans should already be familiar with Phillips from his performance against MSU in Kalamazoo two years ago.
Well Phillips is at it again this year, as he took a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown last week against USC. He averaged about 23 yards per return on his other kick returns against the Trojans. But the possibility of him breaking one is always there as Phillips now has five career kick return touchdowns.
Which brings us to kickoffs. Brett Scanlon will be kicking off against his old team this week, after making his MSU debut against Bowling Green. Scanlon averaged 61.17 yards per kick last week and had one touchback. That works out the opponent fielding the ball just inside their four yard line on average. Not bad. However, with Phillips back there this week, I would prefer if he tried for a few more touchbacks.
For MSU the coverage was pretty solid last week, holding Bowling Green to an average return of 18.60 yards, with a long of 32 yards. That averages out to BG starting inside their own 23 yard line, which is a win when you don’t get the touchback.
The punter Mitchell kicked off five times against USC, but averaged only 54.60 yards per kick. Place kicker Josh Grant had one kickoff, the one to open the game, which went for a touchback before Mitchell took over for the rest of the day.
Western did a solid job covering the kickoffs, holding the Trojans to an 18.8 yard average on four returns, the long going for 32 yards.
Edge: Western Michigan
It’s a tough call between these two teams, as both have experienced punters and freshman kickers. But the difference maker is Darius Phillips. A guy like that can be a huge weapon, MSU knows all too well what he is capable of. Even if he doesn’t break one for a score, the potential is always there. And he can just as easily flip the field with a big return without scoring as well.
So slight edge to the Broncos in the special teams category this week, but if MSU can keep Phillips in check, they can turn the advantage in their favor pretty easily.