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Special Teams Breakdown: Penn State

The Nittany Lions have a solid punter and a dangerous return man.

Kent State v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Last year’s battle for the Land Grant Trophy came down to a last second field goal by Matt Coghlin, who nailed both the kick and the celebration, and gave the Spartans their signature win of the season. This year the Spartans are on the road and once again looking for a season defining victory. If the game is close like last year, the special teams will play a big role.

Place Kicking

Matt Coghlin made a pair of field goals in last week’s loss to Northwestern, giving him 16 straight makes dating back to last season. That is a new program record according to MSU. McLovin is now 8-for-8 on the year and 14-for-14 on extra points. The coaching staff has talked about how confident he is right now, and for good reason. If the game comes down to Coghlin’s leg again, the Spartans will be in good shape.

Penn State

The kicking game is not as consistent for the home team. The Nittany Lions are breaking in a freshman kicker this year. Jake Pinegar is just 3-for-6 on field goals so far this year with a long of 39 yards. He has been perfect on all 33(!) extra point attempts though. And when you see how many more TD’s Penn State has scored than MSU, you see why it probably isn’t as big of a deal that Pinegar has only made half his field goal tries.


The punting game was actually a bright spot for Michigan State last week. Tyler Hunt continued to handle the job, which appears to be his for the rest of the season with word coming from Coach Dantonio this week that Jake Hartbarger’s injury is probably season ending. Hartbarger may yet be back with the Spartans if they try and go the medical red-shirt route.

As for Hunt, he punted seven times against Northwestern, averaging almost 41 yards per punt and pinned the Wildcats deep in their own territory on multiple occasions. He is now averaging just under 39 yards per punt, which is by no means earth-shattering, but isn’t going to kill you either.

Penn State

Blake Gillikin is in his third season as the primary punter for Penn State (try saying that three times fast). He is averaging 41.86 yards per punt on 21 punts for the season. His career average of 42.8 yards per punt ranks second all-time in Penn State history. He has five punts of 50+ yards this year and has dropped nine inside the 20-yard line.

Kick Returns

MSU had two kickoff returns for 29 total yards last week, just a 14.50 average. That brought their average down slightly but they still remain 18th in the country with an average of 25.67 yards per return. Connor Heyward continues to lead the way with six returns averaging 21.33 yards per return.

Penn State is 75th in the nation in return average allowed at 21.55 yards per return. They have also allowed a kickoff return touchdown, which probably skews the numbers a little bit. They have the third best coverage average of any team that has allowed a TD, so that tells you the rest of the time they have done a decent job.

Penn State

On the Nittany Lions side, Saquon Barkley is no longer a threat to return kicks as he is currently carrying the New York Giants around on his back. Receiver KJ Hamler has taken all but one of the kickoff returns for PSU this year, averaging 26.22 yards per return. As a team Penn State ranks one spot behind MSU in return average at 25.60 yards per return.

Meanwhile the Spartans have moved up to 27th in the country in kickoff return coverage. They are allowing just 18.10 yards per kick return so far this year, so far a nice improvement over last season. Last week Cole Hahn had four touchbacks on five kickoffs, and has now surpassed last year’s touchback total. MSU is 42nd in touchback percentage at 58.62% after ranking 116th last year.

Punt Returns

Brandon Sowards had two punt returns last week for nine total yards, brining MSU’s season totals to eight punt returns for 56 total yards, or seven yards per return for you math majors out there. The punt return game remains pretty non-existent for MSU, but the coaches seem happy to go with the safe, sure-handed choice over the one that might be more explosive.

I wouldn’t expect any explosiveness in the punt return game this week either. As noted above, Penn State’s punter is pretty good, and has allowed only five returns through the first five games. Those five returns have totaled four yards.

Penn State

On the flip side, the Nittany Lions have had some explosive plays in the punt return game. PSU comes in at 30th nationally averaging 13.38 yards per punt return. DeAndre Thompkins has the bulk of the returns, and averages an even 13 yards per return. He also has taken one back for a touchdown this year. Kickoff man KJ Hamler has three returns and is averaging 20 yards per return on those so either one of them is dangerous.

Michigan State has been ok in punt coverage this year, ranking 60th nationally and allowing an average return of 7.33 yards. For the most part they have been pretty good, but they will be tested this week.


I am going to give Penn State the slight edge due to their advantages in the punting game, both with their punter and with their returners. Tyler Hunt has been good, but one line drive kick to Thompkins could change all of that in a hurry. The Spartan defense will likely need all the help it can get, so not giving up big yards in the kicking game to flip field position will be important.