Things continue to be up and down for the Spartans on special teams this year. As a result they have a middle of the road special teams efficiency ranking of 52nd at the midway point of the year. Their opponent this week, Wisconsin, has been just straight up bad on special teams. The Badgers are 115th in the special teams efficiency rankings, which is even worse than the 101st spot they were in at the end of last season. Let’s see how they stack up.
Matt Coghlin was 1-for-2 on field goals last week, making his first attempt from 39 yards out, but missing a chip shot 27-yarder after the Spartans drove the field to open the second half and were trying to cut into a 17-point deficit.
Coghlin is now 11-for-17 on the season, but remains perfect for his career on extra points. Saturday’s game has the potential to be a low scoring affair where points will come at a premium. Missing field goals, especially from inside of 40 yards, is something the Spartans probably cannot afford if they hope to win the game.
The Badgers have their own kicking issues. Sophomore place kicker Collin Larsh is just 2-for-5 on field goals this year, with a long of 36 yards. He has also missed an extra point, although he is 29-for-30 overall on those.
This is the first year for Larsh as the Wisconsin kicker, so there is certainly time to get better, but as of now this remains an area of concern for the Badgers.
It was another solid week for Jake Hartbarger against Ohio State, as he punted seven times and averaged 46.86 yards per punt with a long of 60 yards. He also dropped four of the seven punts inside the OSU 20-yard line.
Hartbarger is seventh in the country in punting average at 47.63 yards per punt. He also passed Brandon Fields on the career punt list last week and is now eighth all time at MSU, and he’s closing in on Craig Jarrett for the fifth best average in school history as well.
Punting has not been a strength so far for Wisconsin. Senior Anthony Lotti has been the main punter, having punted 19 times and averaged 40.95 yards per punt. Fellow senior Connor Allen has one punt for 37 yards which came last week against Kent State. The team average for the Badgers is 86th in the country.
Lotti has three punts of 50+ yards and has landed eight of his 19 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, with half of those coming against Northwestern.
Michigan State did not attempt a kickoff return against Ohio State last week. It was the first time since the Arizona State game last year that MSU did not attempt a kickoff return.
For the season MSU ranks 84th in kickoff return average at 19.90 yards per return with Darrell Stewart doing most of the work in that department. Julian Barnett was back deep for several of the kicks last week though and might see more action moving forward.
The Badgers are a solid kickoff coverage team, checking in at 21st in the country holding teams to 17 yards per return. They have also only allowed eight total kick returns this season.
The Badgers are 57th in kickoff return average, at 21.83 yards per return. Sophomore wideout Aron Cruickshank has handled most of the kick return duties, with four returns for an average of 25.75 yards. Freshman running back Nakia Watson has one return for 28 yards.
Michigan State is 70th in kickoff coverage, allowing an average return of 21 yards. They did not give up a kickoff return last week against Ohio State.
The Spartans did not attempt a punt return last week against Ohio State either. Brandon Sowards has been solid since taking over the role from Cody White, averaging 16 yards per return on three returns.
For the season the Spartans are 54th in punt return average at 8.77 yards per return.
Wisconsin checks in at 76th nationally allowing an average of eight yards per punt return.
On their own returns the Badgers are 51st in punt return average at an even nine yards per return. Junior wide receiver Jack Dunn is the primary return man and is averaging 9.21 yards on his 19 punt returns. This is a step up from Dunn’s performance last year when he averaged 5.53 yards as the primary punt returner.
The Spartans are 55th in punt coverage allowing 5.7 yards per punt return. They did not allow a punt return last week against Ohio State.
Cole Hahn handled kickoff duties again last week and averaged a season high 61 yards per kickoff, getting one touchback on three kicks.
The Spartans continue to struggle in this department, ranking 106th in kickoff average and 97th in touchback percentage.
Meanwhile, the Badgers are 13th in the country in touchback percentage, at 78.38 percent. This is the result of averaging 64.68 yards per kickoff, which is fifth best in the country. Senior kicker Zach Hintze has been the kickoff specialist for the last three seasons and has averaged over 64 yards per kick each year.
Both teams have had issues on special teams, and with the exception of Jake Hartbarger, there is no real standout performers for either team. The weather is currently looking to be around 50 degrees with winds about 17 mph, so while that isn’t crazy, it certainly could factor into the kicking game.
If the game comes down to special teams, I think the Spartans have an edge, but they cannot afford to waste scoring opportunities inside Wisconsin territory, so Coghlin is going to need to have a good day.