Back to Big Ten play for the Spartans after grabbing a win against Central Michigan. It was a relatively uneventful special teams game for MSU, which is probably a good thing. Things could get a little dicey this week with the weather calling for wind and rain in East Lansing. With a new punter, and punt returner, avoiding a special teams catastrophe will be important.
Matt Coghlin was kept out of the endzone last week, but not off the score sheet. Coghlin made his only field goal attempt and was perfect on all four extra points. He is perfect on all 19 kicks so far this season, six field goals and 13 extra points.
In fact, Coghlin has not missed a field goal since the last time MSU and Northwestern hooked up. He was just 1-for-3 in the overtime loss in Evanston last season, but is a perfect 14-for-14 since.
Charlie Kuhnbander is in his second season as the primary kicker for Northwestern. He is just 2-for-4 on the season thus far on field goals after going 13-for-16 last year. He has converted all 11 extra point attempts though, after going 43-for-44 last season.
Both the misses came in the Wildcats shocking loss at home to Akron. He is 2-for-2 against Big Ten opponents, having made one in each game against Purdue and Michigan.
Tyler Hunt has landed himself alone atop the depth chart as Michigan State’s punter. He handled all the punting last week against Central Michigan, punting four times and averaging 35.5 yards per punt. He had a long of 48 yards.
Hunt is now averaging a little over 37 yards per punt on his eight punts since Hartbarger’s injury. While this is far from great, he has had some punts in shorter field scenarios and has flashed the ability to put a little more leg into it when necessary.
Again, this week will be a challenge with the weather, so it will be interesting to see how Hunt handles the elements.
Jake Collins handles the punting duties for the Wildcats this year, which is his first with the team after transferring from Western Kentucky. Collins has punted 22 times this year and is averaging 37.91 yards per punt. He averaged over 40 yards per punt in each of his previous three seasons with Western Kentucky, so this would be a career low for him.
He has dropped seven of his 22 punts (31.8%) inside the 20-yard line this year, and only half of his punts have led to a return, with the other 11 being fair caught. He does not have a touchback, nor does he have a 50+ yard punt this year.
Somehow, Michigan State is now a top-10 team in kickoff return average. The Spartans are currently 10th in the nation averaging 28.86 yards per kick return. They have the second highest return average of any team that hasn’t had a kickoff return touchdown.
They have done it by being consistent but not explosive. Connor Heyward leads the team with four returns, but has the lowest average at 24.75 yards. Darrell Stewart, who missed last game, has two returns and is averaging 34.5 yards on those. Linebacker Antjuan Simmons got a return chance last game against Northwestern and brought it out 34 yards.
Heyward and Stewart remain the top options on the depth chart, but it’s unclear if Stewart will continue to get return reps after coming back from being banged up, if he plays at all. With the weather a factor, my guess is Dantonio will go with the guys he trusts the most with their hands this week.
The Spartans will probably get some chances this week, as the Wildcats have only gotten touchbacks on three of their 17 kickoffs (17.65%) this year. Northwestern has done a decent job covering those kicks though, as they allow only a 19.40 yard average, good for 43rd in the country.
The Wildcats are middle of back in kick returns, averaging 21.25 yards per return, which is good for 63rd overall. Sophomore wideout Kyric McGowan has handled most of the return work, averaging 22.83 yards on six returns.
Running back John Moten IV has the other two returns but is averaging just 16.5 yards per return on those. Moten has seen his role in the offense increase following the sudden departure of starting running back Jeremy Larkin.
The Spartans continue to see an improvement in touchback percentage this year, with 13 on 24 kickoffs. The next touchback will equal last season’s total, so credit to Cole Hahn for being a big improvement in this area.
The coverage has been pretty good as well for MSU. They rank 25th in the country allowing only 16.89 yards per kickoff return. This is also a pretty big improvement over last year where they allowed 20.89 yards and had already allowed a return TD.
The Spartans had their longest punt return in four years last week. Brandon Sowards, who will handle the punt return duties with White injured, had a 24 yard return against Central, the longest for MSU since September of 2014.
Sadly, the Spartans overall average remains just 7.83 yards per return, ranking 81st in the country. Sowards one return for 24 yards eclipsed the total for all five of Cody White’s returns (23 yards). I wouldn’t expect Sowards to be explosive in the role, but he should be solid enough, and I expect the coaches trust him more to field the punts and make good decisions than some of the younger guys.
We mentioned above that Collins has only allowed returns on half his punts, and the Wildcats have done a good job covering those returns. Northwestern is 24th in the country allowing an average of just four yards per punt return.
Like MSU, Northwestern hasn’t had much luck in the punt return game. The Cats are 97th in return average at 5.64 yards per return. Riley Lees has all 11 return attempts this year after leading the team in the same category a year ago. However, his average has dropped by more than four yards per return.
The Spartans have done an okay job covering punts this year, allowing an average of 7.83 yards per return, checking in at 61st in the country.
We will give the Spartans the edge in this one thanks to the consistency of Matt Coghlin. Whichever group “wins” the special teams game will likely be the group that can avoid the most mistakes. Mishandled snaps, shank punts, and muffed returns are all in play this week with the weather forecast. If the Spartans can get through those conditions with this group, that might be a win in and of itself.