Week one is in the books and the Spartans had a pretty solid effort overall on special teams. The team now heads out west to the desert for a true road game against a power five opponent in Arizona State. Let’s take a look at how the Sun Devils and Spartans stack up on special teams.
It was a great start to the season for Matt Coghlin, who got right into the action with a career long 49-yard field goal to kick off (no pun intended) the Spartans scoring for the season. He would then tack on a 32-yarder and a 24-yarder later in the game. Coghlin was also a perfect 3-for-3 on extra points.
It was good to see Dantonio with the confidence to go with the long field goal attempt early in the season, and even better to see Coghlin knock it through. McLovin has now converted 11 straight field goal attempts dating back to last November.
The Sun Devils also have a sophomore kicker entering his second year of full time kicking duties. Brandon Ruiz was 19-for-27 (70.4%) on field goals with a long of 52-yards. He was nearly perfect at extra points converting 49-of-50 attempts. The 52-yarder was actually his first career field goal at ASU, making him the first Sun Devil kicker to knock through a 50+ yard attempt for his first career field goal. He was also named Pac-12 special teams player of the week twice.
In the opener against UTSA, Ruiz did not attempt a field goal, but made all seven of his extra point attempts.
Jake Hartbarger had only two punts in the game last Friday night. The first one was very good, going for 49-yards, even if it was returned 13 yards back the other way. The second punt wasn’t as good, as it went out of bounds after just 30 yards, setting Utah State up at their own 40 yard line.
While I expect points to be plentiful in this game, the Spartans will still need to try and force ASU into as many long fields as possible. That will mean Hartbarger will have to be on his game. They can’t afford any of those shanks to give the Devils a short field.
Michael Sleep-Dalton is the punter for the Sun Devils. A red-shirt sophomore, he took over the punting duties last season and averaged 39.90 yards per kick on 62 total punts. He had nine punts of 50+ yards and dropped 17 of his 62 punts (27.4%) inside the 20-yard line. He is a rugby style punter by trade, but can also punt the traditional way.
He had a great week in the opener last Saturday averaging 47.40 yards per punt on five attempts, including a career long of 62 yards. He also had a 61 yarder in the game and had three punts downed within the UTSA 10-yard line, as well as another one that was inside the twenty.
Nothing special from the Spartans on kickoff returns in week one. Connor Heyward had three returns for 63 total yards, averaging 21 yards per return. Darrell Stewart had one return for 26 yards. Neither of those guys are what you would call “explosive” in the return game, but they are also not likely to make a big mistake, although Heyward did bring one out that he only got back to the 19-yard line to start the second half.
MSU’s return unit may not get many chances this week, because Brandon Ruiz was one of the best in the country last year in kickoffs for touchbacks. Ruiz had 75 kickoffs last year and 52 of them (69.3%) went for touchbacks. That was the ninth best touchback percentage in the country. However, on the 22 returns allowed, ASU was 99th in the country allowing 23.23 yards per return, including a touchdown.
Last week Ruiz had eight kickoffs and six of them went for touchbacks. The two returns went for just a total of 30 yards. I wouldn’t expect much from the Spartans in this area on Saturday.
The Sun Devils had just one kickoff return in their opener against UTSA, and it went for just 12 yards. Sophomore running back Isiah Floyd took the lone return attempt, his first career kickoff return. Floyd was also the team’s second leading rusher in the game, carrying nine times for 79 yards for a nice little 8.78 yard per carry average. So it’s safe to say he has some moves. ASU was 96th in the country last year in kickoff average at 19.32 yards per return and did not have a touchdown.
The Spartans may have finally found their kickoff specialist. Cole Hahn had eight kickoffs last week and got touchbacks on six of them. Brett Scanlon had just 14 total touchbacks last year on 62 kickoffs, just a 22.58% rate. Hahn is already nearly halfway to that total in one game. It’s gotta be the shoes right?
The two returns the Spartans did allow though were not covered great, with them both going for 24 yards.
Michigan State did not attempt a punt return in the season opener against Utah State. In fact, they did not even field a punt in the game. Cody White is still listed as the starter at punt returner for this week so expect him to be the one back there receiving punts from Sleep-Dalton.
The Sun Devils were 36th in the nation last year in punt coverage, allowing just a 5.57 yard average per return and did not give up a punt return touchdown. They had one punt returned in the opener by UTSA that went for 15 yards.
ASU themselves had just two punt return attempts in their opener, both being taken by junior wideout Brandon Aiyuk, who netted a whopping five yards on those two returns. Aiyuk was not one of the nine players that had a punt return for Arizona State last year, but looks like he will be given first crack this year. ASU averaged only 6.05 yards per return last year so that wasn’t one of their strong suits.
As we mentioned above, MSU had one of their two punts returned for 13 yards last week, which is almost half of the total punt return yards that opponents had against the Spartans last season. Hartbarger allowed only 12 of his 69 punts to be returned a year ago.
This one is also pretty close. Both teams have good sophomore kickers, and neither has shown to be particularly efficient in the return game over the last year and one game. I give the slight edge to the Spartans because Hartbarger has more experience and MSU has handled the rugby style kickers well in the past. It is entirely possible that the game turns on a special teams play one way or the other, and maximizing scoring chances, even if they result in lengthy field goals, could prove crucial. The Spartans will need to play a clean game on special teams if they hope to come out on top this week.