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Special Teams Breakdown: Penn State

The Nittany Lions have a solid kicking game and return man you can’t sleep on.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off a much needed bye week, the Spartans come home to take on their third straight top ten opponent. Penn State is undefeated and fresh off a win over Michigan last Saturday night. This will be another tough matchup for MSU, and a clean special teams game is going to probably be needed if a win is going to be in the cards for the Spartans.

Place Kicking

Matt Coghlin did not attempt a kick of any kind in Madison two weeks ago. He remains 11-for-17 on field goals and a perfect 18-for-18 on extra points. Coghlin has made four for his last seven field goal attempts following his 0-for-3 game against Arizona State.

Penn State coming to East Lansing should bring back good memories for Coghlin, who kicked the game winner against the Nittany Lions two years ago on the last play of the game. The slip-n-slide days feel like a while ago, but hopefully Coghlin can find right the ship for the rest of the season.

Penn State

Sophomore kicker Jake Pinegar is the primary kicker for Penn State for the second straight year. Pinegar is 5-for-6 on field goals and 37-for-37 on extra points this season. He made two thirds of his field goal attempts last year, and 53-of-55 extra points.

Pinegar’s long field goal on the season is 38 yards, but he did make multiple field goals from 49 yards last season.


Jake Hartbarger was probably the busiest MSU player against Wisconsin two weeks ago, punting nine times and averaging 43.11 yards per punt in some windy conditions. The nine punts was a season high for Hartbarger, and included three punts of 50+ yards.

Hartbarger is up to 222 career punts, putting him at seventh on the all-time MSU list, just two behind Chris Salani for sixth place. He’s averaging 46.5 yards per punt this year, the third best single season average in school history.

Penn State

Senior punter Blake Gillikin is averaging 41.69 yards per punt on 36 punts this year, which is actually the lowest average of his four year career. Last year he set the Penn State record averaging 44 yards per punt. He is also the career leader at Penn State for punting average.

His long on the season is 62 yards, and he has seven punts of 50+ yards and has dropped 19-of-36 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Kickoff Returns

Michigan State attempted just one kickoff return against Wisconsin two weeks ago, with Darrell Stewart bringing it out 18 yards.

For the season the Spartans are 79th in the country averaging 19.73 yards per kickoff return. Stewart is averaging 21.57 yards per return on his team high seven kickoff returns.

The Nittany Lions are 35th in the country in kickoff coverage, allowing an average return of 18.71 yards.

Penn State

Kickoff returns have not been an area of strength for PSU this season as they rank 108th in the country in kickoff return average at 18.09 yards per return. KJ Hamler has been the primary kick returner and has averaged 21.25 yards on seven returns. Last season Hamler averaged 26.15 yards per return, and he certainly has explosive capabilities.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

MSU is 85th in kickoff return coverage, allowing an average of 21.94 yards per return. The only kickoff for MSU at Wisconsin was brought back 38 yards.

Punt Returns

The Spartans attempted just one punt return against Wisconsin and it went backwards one yard. After back-to-back strong efforts against Northwestern and Indiana, Brandon Sowards has attempted just the one return for -1 yards in the last two games.

For the season MSU is 60th nationally averaging 8.07 yards per punt return. Penn State is 15th in punt coverage allowing just 2.67 yards per return.

Penn State

KJ Hamler also handles the punt return duties for Penn State and is averaging 5.47 yards on 19 returns. As a team PSU is at 6.39 yards per return, which ranks 79th in the country.

The Spartans are 41st in the country in punt coverage giving up 5.08 yards per return.


The lone kickoff for MSU at Wisconsin went 61 yards and was brought back 38 yards, which isn’t ideal. Cole Hahn continues to handle the kickoff duties and is averaging less than 23% touchbacks. He was at 40.68% last year. His kickoff distance average is also down about two yards.

MSU is 111th in kickoff distance and 97th in touchback percentage.

Penn State

On the flip side, PSU is sixth in the nation in touchback percentage at 81.63 percent. Junior kicker Jordan Stout is the kickoff specialist and has been excellent, with a 63.8 yard average and only one kick out of bounds.


I am going to give the edge to Penn State in this one. Both teams have strong punters, but Penn State’s place kicking game is currently more solid than MSU’s. While Hamler hasn’t been great in the return game, he feels like a more dangerous threat in that area than anyone on MSU.