The big day is almost upon us, the culmination of a year’s worth of back and forth and bragging and it all comes down to what happens on the field Saturday at noon in East Lansing. The weather is not expected to be great and the game looks like it should be a tight one, so special teams may very well come into play in a big way this year. Not like that has ever happened befOH HE HAS TROUBLE WITH THE SNAP!
Now that we got that out of the way, on to the breakdown of this year’s special teams units.
Matt Coghlin did not attempt a field goal last week, as Mark Dantonio and company chose to go for the fake down three rather than try a 40-yard attempt with a kicker that has made the most consecutive field goals in school history. That decision didn’t end up costing MSU the game last week, but that doesn’t mean it was a good idea.
Coghlin has kicked in some poor conditions before at MSU, but if it is rainy and windy on Saturday like they are forecasting, my guess is that they will try and keep his attempts to 40 yards and in. Going up against a tough defense like Michigan’s, the Spartans will need to cash in pretty much every chance they get inside the 30 tomorrow. Hopefully that results in more extra points than field goals.
Second season for Quinn Nordin at Michigan and the Wolverine kicker has made 11-of-14 field goals and 30-of-31 extra points. That is pretty much in line with where he has been. Last season he made 19-of-24 field goals (79.2%) and 35-of-38 extra points.
Nordin has a big leg with a long this year of 50-yards, and a career long of 55-yards.
MSU had a season high 10 punts last week, which was a pretty impressive feat considering they ended up winning the game. Those punts averaged 40.40 yards, which is right about where Tyler Hunt is overall in his punting average. He continues to do a solid job in relief of Jake Hartbarger, and will likely be called upon often again this week. Field position will likely be a huge factor in the game and the Spartans need Hunt to keep up the good work he’s been doing in what will likely be less that favorable punting conditions.
Will Hart is the punter for UM, and he has been incredible. After averaging just under 38 yards per kick on 13 punts last season, Hart is averaging over 51 yards per punt this year. Now he has only punted 20 times in seven games, or five less times than Tyler Hunt has in four games. But when he has hit some boomers. Thirteen of his 20 punts have been 50+ yards including multiple 60-yarders. He’s dropped eight of his 20 punts (40%) inside the 20-yard line.
Once again, in a game where field position figures to be important, Hart is a huge weapon for the Wolverines.
Michigan State had one kickoff return last week and it went for 15 yards. That drops them down to an average return this year of 24.60, still good for 23rd in the country, but they are averaging less than 15 yards per return over their last two games. Connor Heyward is averaging 20.43 yards per return and continues to see the bulk of the chances.
Michigan is 65th in the nation in kickoff coverage allowing an average of 20.86 yards per return. They have also allowed one kickoff return for a touchdown this year. However, UM is getting touchbacks on 56% of their kickoffs this season, which is solid enough for 46th in the country.
The Wolverines check in at 55th in kickoff returns averaging 21.69 yards per return. Ambry Thomas is the top return man, with nine of the 13 returns for UM on the season. Thomas is averaging 27.11 yards per return and took one back to the house against Notre Dame in the season opener.
The Spartans remain solid in the coverage game, ranking 28th in the country allowing an average return of 18.31 yards. Cole Hahn is getting touchbacks on 54.55% of his kicks this year. MSU was able to hold Penn State to an average of 19 yards per return on three attempts last week in Happy Valley.
The Spartans had five punt return attempts last week against Penn State and averaged 5.2 yards per return. They are 95th in the country in punt return average at 6.31 yards per return. Brandon Sowards had been handling the punt return duties following Cody White’s injury, but Sowards got banged up against Penn State as well. Laress Nelson stepped in for Sowards and had two returns for 11 yards but also mishandled a punt late in the game, luckily it was only a juggle and he maintained control.
In last year’s Michigan game Nelson was relieved of his punt return duties for the more sure handed Cody White after a couple of issues receiving the punt cleanly in adverse conditions.
Both Sowards and Nelson got hurt last week and MSU did not release a depth chart this week leaving us with only speculation as to who the punt returner will be. If Sowards is healthy it will be him, otherwise it could be any number of people depending on who is healthy and who the coaches feel comfortable with back there.
Meanwhile, Michigan has had some issues in punt coverage. They are 90th nationally allowing an even nine yards per return.
As for returning punts, the Wolverines rank 57th as a team with an average of 9.85 yards per punt return. Donovan Peoples-Jones is the man for Michigan in this department, and has been pretty much since the day he stepped on campus last year. He is averaging over 9.4 yards per return this year and has taken one back for a touchdown. Last year he averaged eight yards per return and had a touchdown so he’s been even more explosive so far this year.
The Spartans have covered punts pretty well so far, allowing an average of 6.38 yards per return, good for 51st overall. But they will have their hands full this week and it will be important for Hunt to give his coverage team time to get downfield.
I’m giving Michigan the edge in this area this week. The Wolverines have weapons at kicker, punter, and both return spots. Michigan State has been solid but unspectacular on special teams outside of Coghlin’s streak.
The edge for Michigan isn’t a huge one, but they have enough players on the special teams units that any one of them can be a game changer. MSU will have to try and limit any explosive plays from UM, as well as avoid any major mistakes of their own. If they can do that, this should be an even battle.