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Special Teams Breakdown: Illinois

The Illini have a solid, but unspectacular fourth phase.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Following a second bye week in a short span, Michigan State is back at it against Illinois this weekend. The Spartans had yet another poor special teams performance against Penn State, a trend that has continued to be an issue as the season wears on. Let’s see how they stack up with the Illini.

Place Kicking

Matt Coghlin’s only field goal attempt against Penn State was a 46-yard attempt that was blocked. The blocking was poor once again, something that has become an issue for MSU’s field goal unit and has probably played a bigger role in Coghlin’s struggles than you might think.

For the season now Coghlin is at 61.1% on field goal attempts. After starting the year 7-for-7, he has made just four of his last 11 attempts.

MSU’s losses have been lopsided the last three games, so the field goal kicking being bad hasn’t really come into play, however that could be the case this week against an Illinois team that is on a roll and playing with confidence.


Junior kicker James McCourt is in his first year as the field goal kicker, replacing three year starter Chase McLaughlin. On the season McCourt is 8-for-12 on field goal attempts with a long of 57 yards. He also has makes from 53 and 50 yards so the leg isn’t an issue at all.

McCourt hit the game winner a couple weeks back to knock off then undefeated Wisconsin as time expired, so he certainly isn’t afraid of making a kick in a big spot.


Even the ever reliable Jake Hartbarger struggled in the Penn State loss. For the first time all season he had an off game, averaging just 31 yards per punt on seven punts, including a five yard shank.

Up to that point he had been nearly perfect this year, so you can chalk it up as one bad game and assume he will be right again this week.

For the season he is still averaging nearly 44 yards per punt, so even with the rough game he’s still having a solid year.


Junior Blake Hayes is in his third season as the Illini punter, and his having a very good year. He is averaging 45.04 yards per punt, a career best. He has 17 punts over 50 yards, including a 70-yard boot against Michigan.

He has dropped 24 of his 70 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only one touchback, that’s pretty impressive.

He did have one punt blocked against Michigan, something that happened to him twice last season.

Kickoff Returns

The Spartans actually attempted three kickoff returns in their last game against Penn State, the most since the Western Michigan game. They averaged just 18.33 yards per return on those three attempts, with three different players getting a chance.

With the injury to Darrell Stewart, freshman wideout Julian Barnett is now listed at the top of the depth chart for kickoff returns. He had a 19 yard return against Penn State, his second attempt of the season.

Also on the chart is Andre Welch, the junior who had a 12 yard return against Penn State in his first attempt of the season.

For the season the Spartans are 89th in kickoff return average at 19.43 yards per return.

Don’t expect much in the return game here as Illinois is 16th in the country allowing just 17.60 yards per return.


Senior running back Dre Brown handles the bulk of the kickoff return work for Illinois, having taken 15 of their 19 return attempts. He has been pretty good, averaging 26.93 yards per return after averaging 22 yards per return last year.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Illinois Michael Allio-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans have had their issues on kick coverage, ranking 89th in the country allowing 21.95 yards per return.

Punt Returns

The Spartans attempted four punt returns against Penn State, but were able to pick up just a total of seven yards on those four returns. This brings their total punt return yardage over the last three games to six yards on five attempts. Not a great average.

Brandon Sowards is still averaging 6.75 yards per return, but as noted, hasn’t done much lately after getting off to a good start.

The Spartans are 74th in the country in punt return average, while Illinois is 74th in punt return defense.


The Illini have used a few different players in the punt return game this year, not unlike MSU. Sophomore wideout Jordan Holmes has the most attempts, and is averaging 6.57 yards per return.

None of the returners have been all that effective, as Illinois checks in at 85th in the country averaging 6.29 yards per return.

The Spartans were lucky not to give up a touchdown on a punt return last week as a borderline running into the kicker flag saved them. For the season MSU is 37th in punt coverage giving up just 5.40 yards per return.


This continues to be an area of poor performance for Michigan State. They rank 107th in kickoff distance and 101st in touchback percentage. Now it hasn’t been much of a factor because MSU has had just five total kickoffs over the last three games. But they have only one touchback on those five kicks.


On the flip side, the Illini are 14th in the country in touchbacks at 72% and 13th in kickoff distance.


Nothing glaring one way or the other. Illinois has had a pretty good kicking game in both the field goal and punting departments. They have gotten some solid kick returns, but not much on punts. The kickoff distance could negate any real chances for MSU to try and get a kick return going, but it’s not like the Spartans have done all that much when they do bring it out.

I will give the edge to Illinois because overall they have been more consistent, and MSU hasn’t shown the ability to put together a complete special teams effort yet.