clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Special Teams Breakdown: Northwestern

The Wildcats have a solid special teams group, while MSU looks to rebound from last week.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first two games Michigan State’s special teams unit was one of the strengths of the team. That was…not the case last week against Arizona State.

While it wasn’t a failure across the board, the problems were glaring and certainly played into costing MSU the game. In addition to the failures on the field, the coaches didn’t do the players any favors either. Everyone needs to be better this week in what will likely be another low scoring affair against Northwestern.

Place Kicking

Everybody has a bad day once in a while, and Matt Coghlin’s was last Saturday. MSU’s all-time leader in field goal percentage officially went 0-for-3 in field goal attempts, missing twice from 47-yards, and once from 31-yards out.

Coghlin had been nearly automatic inside of 40 yards, so the short miss was really the shocker. Missing from 47 the first time you can live with because it is on the edge of his range. The second one obviously ended the game, it also shouldn’t have been necessary.

Actually MSU committed two penalties wiping out two Coghlin makes. The one everyone remembers is the one at the end of the game for too many men on the field.

The one that gets overlooked was a delay of game penalty on the short miss at the end of the first half. Coghlin initially nailed the 26-yarder but the snap came a second after the play clock expired and moved them back five yards. He missed the retry, which was only from 31 yards out, but still it shouldn’t have been necessary. There is no excuse for that penalty given the situation, and with MSU sitting on two timeouts at the time, the mistake makes even less sense.

I really don’t have a ton of concern about Coghlin bouncing back. He drilled the initial field goal at the end of the game when being rushed onto the field. Missing the second one felt inevitable after the long delay and the penalty yards. I feel good about him bouncing back and being the consistent kicker we have seen. It was just a bad day.


The Wildcats have a junior kicker in Charlie Kuhbander, who is 3-for-4 on field goals so far this year and 4-for-4 on extra points. As a freshman two years ago, Kuhbander was honorable mention All-Big Ten making 13-of-16 field goals and 43-of-44 extra points. But he struggled some last year converting just 5-of-9 attempts, although he was perfect on extra points.

Kuhbander missed his only attempt in the opener at Stanford before bouncing back with a 3-for-3 performance last week against UNLV, including a long of 44 yards. His career long is 45 yards last year against Michigan.


Now where the place kicking failed last week, the punting did not. Jake Hartbarger continued his stellar start to the season by booting four punts for an average of 45 yards last week. He is at 45.90 yards per punt for the season.

Hartbarger had a 55-yard boot late in the game when MSU needed a good punt, as well as a 51-yarder in the first half. His other two punts that went less than 40 yards were downed at the ASU 15 and 8-yard lines.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Hartbarger is now tied with Bill Simpson for the ninth most punts in MSU history. His average of 42.3 yards per punt is sixth best in school history.


Fifth-year senior Daniel Kubiuk is handling the punting duties for Northwestern this year. A former reserve quarterback, Kubiuk converted to punting in 2017 and won the back-up job and appeared in three games.

This season Kubiuk has punted eight times through two games and is averaging an even 40 yards per punt. He had a career long 53-yarder against Stanford and dropped three punts inside the Cardinal 20-yard line. His long last week against UNLV was 39 yards, with two of his four punts landing inside the twenty.

Kickoff Returns

MSU only had one kickoff return last week and it went for 19 yards by Darrell Stewart to start off the game. Stewart is averaging an even 20 yards per return this year on three attempts.

MSU is going to have to take what it can get with Stewart back there, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Julian Barnett get another shot.

Northwestern is middle of the pack in kickoff returns so far, allowing an average of 19.76 yards per return through their first two games.


Not a lot to go on for the Wildcats so far, as they have only had two kickoff returns through their first two games. Junior wideout Riley Lees is handling the kickoff returns and is averaging 25 yards per return. Lees was one of the main kick returner two years ago as a freshman, and averaged just over 20 yards per return on 11 attempts. Last year though, he had only one return for 10 yards.

The Spartans are 84th in the nation in kickoff returns against, giving up 22.20 yards per return. Last week they allowed just one return for 20 yards against Arizona State.

Punt Returns

It could have been a much better week for MSU in the punt return department, but once again a penalty wiped out a big return at a key moment. Instead, Cody White averaged 5.5 yards on two returns with a long of eight yards.

White has shown some flashes in the return game, but his long ones have all come back due to penalties. For the season he is averaging 6.8 yards on five returns.

Northwestern has been good on punt coverage so far, allowing four returns for a total of six yards. The 1.5 yards per return average is good for 19th in the nation.


Riley Lees is also handling punt returns for the Cats, as he has for the past two seasons. He is pretty solid in that department, averaging 12.3 yards per return on three attempts thus far in 2019. Last year he really struggled though, averaging just 5.4 yards per return. As a freshman two years ago he was solid with a 9.75 yard average.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Spartans are giving up just 2.5 yards per punt return on the season, and last week ASU had only one return attempt that went for -3 yards. Hartbarger just doesn’t give teams the chance for a return most of the time.


Evan Morris once again handled the kickoff duties last week, getting one touchback and one other kickoff of 50 yards. He has gotten touchbacks on 5-of-11 kickoffs and is averaging just under 60 yards per kick.


The Wildcats have used two different kickoff specialists, with neither having recorded a touchback through their nine combined attempts. Trey Finison has six of the nine attempts and is averaging 58.33 yards per kickoff. Drew Luckenbaugh has three kickoffs averaging 52.33 yards.

Their combined average of 56.33 yards is 121st in the country and they are one of just three teams without a touchback.


The Spartans need a bounce back after last week from Matt Coghlin, but the punt game remains solid. The returns are what they are, but they haven’t been terrible, and it seems like there is a big play waiting to be made soon.

Northwestern is solid but unspectacular across the board. I wouldn’t expect any major mistakes from them, but I doubt they have a group that is going to make a game changing type play either.

I am not going to give an edge one way or the other, but I will say the biggest goal for MSU should be a clean special teams game. No mistakes and they should be just fine.