The Spartans had an ok special teams game against Illinois. There were no major disasters, and the Spartans did force a turnover on special teams recovering a fumble on an Illinois kickoff return. There were a multitude of reasons that the Spartans lost the game to Illinois, but special teams play wasn’t among them.
Matt Coghlin was perfect last week, making all four extra points and two field goals. He connected on a 46-yard field goal with a little over three minutes left to extend MSU’s lead to four. It was a big kick at the time and forced Illinois to need a touchdown to win. Unfortunately we all know what happened next.
Hopefully the perfect day against the Illini will get Coghlin’s confidence back in the right spot, as MSU probably can’t afford to miss out on any potential scoring opportunities against Michigan.
The Michigan place kicking game hasn’t been great this year. Senior Quinn Nordin lost the job and is just 1-for-4 on field goals, and sophomore Jake Moody has taken over as the primary kicker. Moody is 6-for-9 on field goals, and 18-for-18 on extra points. His long on the season is just 43 yards, coming in the Army game.
Nordin did make a field goal against Maryland last week, his first of the year, from 38-yards out. So it looks somewhat up in the air as to who will get the attempts this weekend.
It was another subpar punting performance from Jake Hartbarger last week, his second in a row. For the second time this year Hartbarger averaged less than 40 yards per punt. He did have a long of 46 yards, but landed just one of his six punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
For the season Hartbarger is still averaging 43.43 yards per punt and has 15 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Will Hart is having an excellent season as a senior punter for Michigan. He is averaging better than 46 yards per punt, with 14 punts of 50+ yards. He has dropped only seven of his 40 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, with seven touchbacks.
The Spartans attempted two kickoff returns last week, with Anthony Williams getting a 21 yard return, and Julian Barnett having a return of 10 yards. Things continue to be a struggle for MSU in this department, as they are now down to 18.94 yards per return, which is 90th in the country.
The Spartans are down their top two kickoff returners coming into the season, and the guys that have filled in have just not been able to get much going.
Michigan has struggled on kickoff coverage, ranking 113th in the country allowing an average of 24 yards per return. They have also allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
The Wolverines however, have been pretty good in the kickoff return game. They are eighth in the country in kickoff return average at better than 27 yards per return.
Giles Jackson has been the main kickoff return man for Michigan, and is at 27.67 yards per return on 12 returns, including a return touchdown.
The Spartans have struggled on kickoff return coverage for most of the year, ranking 94th in the country allowing 22.38 yards per return. Last week against Illinois the Spartans allowed 24.5 yards on four returns.
Brandon Sowards attempted two returns last week against Illinois, one good one for 11 yards, and one other that went for just a single yard. Still the 12 return yards on two returns eclipsed the combined punt return yardage of the previous three games.
Sowards has been ok, busting a couple decent returns, while generally making the right decision and being someone you have confidence in to at least catch the punt cleanly.
Michigan is 71st in the country in punt return coverage, giving up 7.56 yards per return.
On punt returns, the Wolverines have been unspectacular as well. They are 82nd in the nation in return average at 6.44 yards per return.
Donovan Peoples-Jones has had the bulk of the punt return attempts, and is averaging 5.68 yards on 19 returns. This is a pretty significant drop off from the 10 yards and a return touchdown he averaged last year, or the eight yards and a TD he managed the year before that.
The Spartans remain pretty solid in punt coverage, ranking 39th in the country allowing 5.47 yards per return.
Michigan State looked like they were trying to drop their kickoffs short and force teams to have to pick it up and run it out last week. It did result in a fumble, but the average field position to start for Illinois ended up being pretty good anyway. They got one touchback on seven kickoffs and the 57.43 yard average was the second lowest of the season.
Michigan is 54th in kickoff distance average and 87th in touchback percentage, so this isn’t exactly a strong suit for them either. Jake Moody has been the kickoff guy basically all year, and is at 34.69% on touchbacks.
Both of these teams are flawed on special teams. Neither kicker is someone you can have total confidence in at this point, while both punters have been pretty good. The Wolverines have some talented return men, but their coverage has been spotty.
Will a big special teams play turn the tide in the game as we have seen in the past? I am not sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone break out a fake in this one. This feels a big like the Spartans last stand this year, so if there was a time to break out all the stops, this is it.