After a week off the boys in green are back in action this weekend looking to turn the page from the disappointing result in the desert. Big Ten play starts for MSU this week as they head to Bloomington, the place where things officially started to come off the rails two years ago. This time around they will have an entirely new special teams crew, so hopefully the result is better. Let’s get to it.
Matt Coghlin continues his hot streak in the kicking game. McLovin has not missed a kick in seven straight games dating back to last season. He is currently 5-for-5 in field goals this year, and 4-for-4 in extra points. The fact he’s kicked more field goals than extra points tells you plenty about how the offense has been performing. Hopefully he spends most of the evening kicking extra points in Bloomington, rather than lining up for short field goal attempts.
The Hoosiers are rocking a new field goal kicker this year after Griffin Oakes finally graduated. Junior Logan Justus is the new place kicker, becoming the first kicker besides Oakes to attempt a field goal for Indiana since the 2014 season. Justus has made two of his three field goal attempts so far and 12-of-13 extra points. His long on the season is just 36 yards and the miss he had was blocked.
Ohhh boy, here we go. The Rocky Lombardi era begins this Saturday night. No the Spartans aren’t switching quarterbacks, as Lombardi is still the backup to Brian Lewerke. But Rocky will take over the punting duties for the injured Jake Hartbarger. The injury to Hartbarger is a significant one, and could very well change the overall strategy for the MSU coaches. What makes it all the more painful is that the injury came on a dead ball play after the whistles had blown, yet no penalty was assessed.
So here we go with Rocky Lombardi, who punted once in the Arizona State game for 32 yards. I honestly have no idea what to expect from Lombardi as the punter. I think the fact he has had basically two weeks in practice to get reps in should help him off the bat, but this isn’t what he was recruited to do. I expect a wide range of results from Lombardi, anywhere from “hey that was pretty good” to shank city. Hopefully he won’t be called on too many times this week.
Junior Haydon Whitehead is in his second year as the Indiana punter. His numbers this year seem pretty consistent with his stats from last year as he is currently averaging 39.50 yards per punt, after an average of 40.69 yards per kick last season. He has punted 12 times so far this year, or an average of four per game.
Whitehead was honorable mention All-Big Ten last year and landed 33 of his 85 punts (38.8%) inside the 20-yard line. This year he has dropped five of his 12 punts inside the 20 and has two 50+ yard punts already after having just five all of last year.
The Spartans check in at 47th nationally for kickoff return average at 22.25 yards per return. Connor Heyward has three returns and is averaging 21 yards per return while Darrell Stewart has one return for 26 yards. None of this is all that impressive, but it also isn’t terrible. Obviously the Spartans could use some more explosiveness in the kick return game, and while they have guys on the roster that could probably provide higher upside, the coaches are choosing to stick with the safe options.
Don’t expect this to be the game they break one either. Indiana has been solid in their kick coverage, allowing just 17.38 yards per return, good for 30th nationally. Sophomore Jared Smolar is the kickoff specialist for the Hoosiers, and has 10 touchbacks on 18 kickoffs so far this year, which is currently 57th nationally in touchback percentage.
Much like MSU, the Indiana kickoff return game has been nothing to write home about. The Hoosiers are 93rd in kickoff return average at 18.17 yards per return. Reese Taylor and Mike Majette have combined to take five of the six return attempts this year, with Taylor averaging 22 yards per return while Majette is at 16 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile, the Spartans coverage has been suspect. They are currently 90th in the country allowing an average return of 21.80 yards per kick return. In years past this would have been a huge issue, but the good news so far this year is Cole Hahn is actually getting some touchbacks. Seven of his 12 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, already halfway to last year’s total. The touchback percentage is up to 58.33% so far after it was just 22.58% a year ago. Still, the coverage team needs to do a better job when called upon.
Guess what Michigan State hasn’t attempted yet this year? A punt return! After averaging less than four yards per punt return last year, the Spartans are yet to attempt a return of any kind this year. This despite the fact that MSU has been punted to eight times through the first two games of the season. I really don’t know exactly how to explain this other than that MSU’s punt return game is literally non-existent after just being figuratively non-existent last year.
Don’t expect anything to change this week either as the Hoosiers have allowed only two return attempts this year, for a grand total of ZERO yards. Basically, Indiana has been using their punting game the same way MSU did last year. They don’t allow returns and they pin teams deep to play the field position game.
More bad news, Indiana has one of the most dangerous punt returners in the country. J-Shun Harris is averaging 13.88 yards per punt return and already has himself a return touchdown. Last year Harris averaged 19 yards per return and brought two back to the house. This for a guy coming back from his THIRD season-ending ACL injury in three years.
Now Harris had been bottled up through the first two games of the year before breaking out last week against Ball State. The Spartans were able to keep him under control last year holding him to 10 yards on three returns.
So far the Spartans have been decent in the punt return game, allowing an average of 6.25 yards per return on four attempts. However, that was with Hartbarger punting. With Lombardi out there I expect many more return opportunities for the opponents than they were getting with Hartbarger. This is not exactly a great matchup right out of the gate for MSU’s new punter.
Indiana holds the edge thanks to J-Shun Harris’ punt return capabilities and Whitehead’s punting prowess. Without Hartbarger, it’s just so hard to know how that aspect of the game will look for Michigan State. They have leaned on the punting game heavily the last year-plus to try and win the field position battle. Who knows if they will be able to do that anymore? I do believe the Spartans have the edge in place kicking, but I really hope that isn’t what this game comes down to.