The one outcome from last Saturday’s loss to Arizona State that may have the most long lasting impact on the Michigan State football season is the loss if punter Jake Hartbarger. The senior punter was hit on a dead play after the whistles had blown, and was lost for the next 6-8 weeks to a bone bruise or fracture in his leg.
In his absence, backup quarterback Rocky Lombardi will take over the punting duties for the Spartans. Lombardi had one punt for 32 yards coming immediately following the injury to Hartbarger.
The injury not only may have prematurely ended the career of the MSU punter, but it may also have a big impact on the way the coaching staff makes in game decisions.
Last year, Hartbarger was a weapon for Michigan State, and a big part of how they were able to win so many close games. Last year Hartbarger averaged 42 yards per punt, which is pretty solid, but only tells part of the story. He also dropped over 40% of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and he allowed only 12 of his 69 punts to be returned for a total of 31 yards all season.
All of this led to MSU being a top-15 team in terms of opponent’s starting field position last year, with the average drive needing to go 71.56 yards to score a touchdown. That, combined with the stout defense, allowed the offense to struggle for periods but keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win late, which they often did.
Now, that option is likely not on the table the way it was. Hartbarger was often surgical in his ability to pin teams deep in their own territory. Regardless of how many reps Rocky Lombardi gets over the next two months, I highly doubt he will be able to directional punt with the same precision. This of course isn’t a knock on Lombardi, but there is a big difference between a guy who has been punting at a high level program for four years, and the backup quarterback who was also the punter for his high school team.
So what does this all mean for how the coaching staff approaches their game plan? I’m not quite sure. The obvious answer that comes to mind is adding in some fake punts with the skilled passer back there. But that is something that every other team will be aware of as well, so like with any fake punt, you still have to pick your spots.
Maybe this means some shotgun punt/pass play option formations, where the team will have to sacrifice dropping a return man deep. This is something that could be utilized on the opponent’s side of the 50-yard line, but outside of field goal range.
What I think this should mean is that the MSU offensive staff needs to be playing with four downs in many more situations than they would have in the past. Dantonio and company rarely had issues punting on the opponent’s side of the 50 and choosing to pin teams deep and play the field position game, knowing it was one they are likely to win. Now, they really need to think about making those four down situations. If the difference is likely to be only a 20 yard flip in field position, I’m just not sure that is worth it.
Obviously the distance to a first down also plays a factor, and going for it on fourth-and-10 from the opponent’s 45-yard line isn’t the same as fourth-and-two at the 39-yard line. But where they likely choose to punt in the later scenario last year, this year the decision to go should be a no-brainer.
The offense has taken some heat after their start to the season, and the conservative nature of the Spartan coaching staff has long been a source of criticism from the fan base. But it has largely worked, and with a weapon like Hartbarger, it seemed better to use him rather than risk the alternative. With that option stripped away, the staff will be faced with higher risk calls than they are used to, and probably prefer. Will they stay the course and hope for the best from Lombardi, or will they open things up and add some new wrinkles and looks for teams to consider? I know which one I would pick, I’m just not sure they will agree with me.