Michigan State got through their first game without Jake Hartbarger without any major disasters on special teams. In fact they even got themselves a special teams touchdown, although not one in the return game. Coach Dantonio pulled out another fake field goal, this time with Matt Coghlin finding the endzone for what proved to be a key touchdown.
This week the Spartans wrap up the non-conference schedule with a home date against Central Michigan. Let’s see how the Chips stack up on special team.
Matt Coghlin’s sophomore campaign is off to a very good start, as he remains perfect with his leg and is tied for second on the team in touchdowns. In the kicking game, Coghlin has made all five of his field goal attempts and all nine extra points. He did not attempt a field goal at Indiana, as the only time MSU lined up for one was the fake.
The Chippewas have used two different place kickers so far this season. Michael Armstrong and Ryan Tice have combined to make four out of five field goal attempts this year and all six extra points they have attempted this year. Tice is a transfer from Michigan, who appeared in a few games for the Wolverines back in 2016.
Only one of the made field goals this season came from beyond 30 yards. That was a 41-yard field goal by Tice at the end of the first half of last week’s game against Maine.
Well the Rocky Lombardi era as punter was very short, in fact it appears to have lasted just a single punt back in Arizona. Instead we got a new duo of punting options, and it appears we will continue to see that duo get shots going forward.
Tyler Hunt had four punts against Indiana, including the first three of the game. He averaged 38.75 yards per punt on those four punts. One went into the endzone for a touchback and a net of just 26 yards, one went out of bounds after 32 yards, one was returned for 19 yards and one was fair caught at the Indiana 25-yard line.
Bryce Baringer punted twice, averaging 34 yards per punt on those two punts, both were fair caught.
Hunt, Baringer, and Rocky Lombardi are all listed as co-starters at punter on the depth chart this week, and I expect that both Hunt and Baringer will continue to get opportunities unless one of them establishes themselves more than the other.
Senior Jack Sheldon is in his third season as the punter for CMU. He has already punted 30 times this year, an average of 7.5 punts per game. He is averaging 41.50 yards per kick, with three punts of 50+ yards. He has dropped six of his 30 punts inside the 20-yard line. He also had one punt blocked by Northern Illinois.
Kickoff returns for Michigan State continue to be good enough but not great. Darrell Stewart had a good return to start the game last week, bringing it out 43 yards and setting up MSU with good field position to start the game. The return was the second of the season for Stewart, who is averaging 34.50 yards per return. After Stewart left the game, Jalen Nailor was back deep in his spot, something I would like to see more of given what he showed us last week.
Connor Heyward continues to get chances as well. Heyward has three returns on the season for an average of 21 yards per return.
CMU is 50th in the country at kickoff coverage, allowing an average return of 19.67 yards. Michigan State should get some return chances in this game, as the Chips are only getting touchbacks on 33.33% of their kickoffs this season, ranking 93rd nationally.
The Chips have three different people with kickoff returns this year, but freshman Kobe Lewis has the most with ten. He is averaging 23.50 yards per return, which is the best of the three. On the whole, CMU checks in at 68th in the country in kick return average, at just under 21 yards per return.
The Spartan kick coverage continues to be subpar, allowing an average of 21.80 yards per return, which checks in at 83rd in the country. However, the Spartans are 28th in the country in touchback percentage, with two-thirds of their kickoffs going for touchbacks.
It took three games but the Spartans finally had some punt return attempts last week against Indiana. Cody White continues to handle the punt return duty, and last week had three returns for a total of 21 yards, with a long of 13 yards.
I am fine with the job White is doing, as he doesn’t take a ton of chances and seems to at least move north and south when he does attempt a return. However, I always worry about such an important player being subjected to extra shots in the return game. I also would love to see what Jalen Nailor could do given the opportunity. But for now I expect MSU to stick with the safe choice.
Central Michigan is 57th in the country in punt coverage, allowing an average return of 7.31 yards on 13 return attempts this season.
Jamil Sabbagh is the Chips main punt returner, having four punt returns for a total of 16 yards. Two other players, including starting running back Jonathan Ward, each have one attempted return that did not yield any yards.
Michigan State is currently allowing an average punt return of 8.8 yards on five punt returns this season. They were able to keep J-Shun Harris in relative check last week, as he only got one return attempt. However, that one return went for 19 yards. This will be an area to continue to monitor with Jake Hartbarger on the shelf.
I’m going to give the edge to Michigan State because Coghlin has now proved to be a weapon in both the kicking and ground game. For the rest of the season teams are going to have to worry about not letting McLovin beat them, and that plays right into MSU’s hands.
But in all seriousness, if this game comes down to special teams play, Michigan State is in a heap of trouble. Let’s just hope Coghlin sticks to kicking extra points and there are relatively few punts for the new guys to show their stuff and MSU will be just fine.