It was a second straight week of less than stellar special teams from Michigan State against Northwestern. While there wasn’t a complete meltdown that ended up costing them the game, they had several mishaps that need to be cleaned up.
MSU started off the season with two really strong special teams games, but the last two weeks have left a lot to be desired from the third phase. They will need to clean things up going forward, as the schedule is only going to get tougher and the margin for error smaller.
Matt Coghlin missed his first field goal of the game against Northwestern from 40 yards out. It was his fourth straight miss after starting the season 7-for-7. The good news is that two drives later he connected from 26 yards, snapping the streak of misses.
While it wasn’t a long field goal, hopefully just seeing it go through the uprights will be akin to a basketball shooter who gets their stroke back after making a couple free throws.
The Spartans need Coghlin to be the reliable kicker he has been for his entire career up until the last couple weeks. It’s very possible a game comes down to his leg again sometime this season, and Coghlin needs to be ready and confident.
The Hoosiers have a senior kicker in Logan Justus, who is in his second year handling the place kicking duties. Justus is perfect on the season having made all seven field goals and 14 extra points he has attempted. His long on the season is from 50 yards against Ball State in the season opener, and is also his career long.
Last year Justus was 15-for-18 in field goals and 32-for-33 on extra points, helping him earn second-team All-Big Ten accolades from the coaches and third-team from the media.
Jake Hartbarger had himself another solid game against Northwestern, booting six punts for an average of 47 yards in some tough wind conditions. Hartbarger had three punts over 50 yards including a 55-yarder. He now has seven punts of 50+ yards through four games.
Hartbarger also dropped two of his six punts inside the 20-yard line, bringing his season total to six out of 16 punts.
For the season Hartbarger is at 46.3 yards per punt, which puts him at 15th in the country for punt average.
Senior punter Haydon Whitehead is in his third year as the punter for Indiana. He is averaging 43.29 yards per punt this year, which would be a career best. Whitehead has a long of 63 yards, and four punts of 50+ yards. He has dropped five of 14 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
Michigan State attempted just one kick return last week and Darrell Stewart had a pretty nice return, bringing it out 31 yards to the MSU 42-yard line. Unfortunately MSU wasted the field position thanks to a personal foul on the first play of the ensuing drive.
The Spartans are 81st in the nation in kick returns, averaging 19.63 yards per return. Stewart is averaging 22.75 yards on four returns.
The Hoosiers have been solid on coverage this year, ranking 28th nationally allowing only 16.75 yards per kickoff return.
When returning kicks, Indiana is right about where MSU is as a whole, averaging 18.79 yards per return, good for 88th in the country.
Freshman wideout David Ellis has handled most of the kickoff returns, averaging 20.45 yards on 11 returns. His long return is 33 yards coming against Ball State.
Ellis is a Michigan native and was a member of last year’s state champion Chippewa Valley team, so this will be a homecoming for him.
The Spartans have not been as solid in kick coverage as they were a year ago, currently ranking 88th in the country allowing 22.18 yards per return. They were solid last week though, holding Northwestern to 22 yards on two returns.
This was a problem area last week for the Spartans. Cody White fumbled on his first punt return, giving Northwestern the ball back after a three-and-out. White then muffed a punt later in the game, and was replaced by Brandon Sowards.
Credit where credit is due, Sowards had two solid returns, including a 14-yarder and a 12-yarder. Those represent two of the better punt returns for MSU in recent years that weren’t called back with a penalty.
This week the depth chart has White OR Sowards listed as the lead punt returner. It is anyone’s guess which one of them will get the first chance, but Dantonio and company value ball security above all else on punt returns so don’t be surprised if we see Sowards back there from the start.
The Hoosiers have allowed 7.75 yards per punt return this season, which is 74th nationally.
The majority of the punt returns this year have been handled by Whop (There it is) Philyor. The junior wideout is averaging a mere 4.14 yards on seven punt returns.
This is a pretty big drop off from the last two seasons when IU had J-Shun Harris brining back three punts for touchdowns and averaging 13.8 yards per return.
The Spartans have allowed eight returns on punts this year and are giving up 5.63 yards per return, ranking 52nd in the country.
Michigan State went back to Cole Hahn for kickoffs last week at Northwestern, after Evan Morris handled the duties the previous two weeks.
Hahn had three touchbacks on six kickoffs, but also kicked one out of bounds, his second of the season. His overall average did improve to over 60 yards per kickoff, but the wind situation may have played a big role in all of it.
This week MSU has Hahn OR Morris listed as the kickoff specialist.
Overall MSU is 110th in average kickoff distance and 82nd in touchback percentage.
On the flip side, the Hoosiers are 36th in kickoff distance and 43rd in touchback percentage. Nathanael Snyder has handled the bulk of the kickoff duties, averaging 62.76 yards on 21 kicks. He has a touchback percentage of 52.38, but also has two out of bounds.
Jared Smolar has gotten touchbacks on all six of his kickoffs this year.
Pretty solid kicking games for both teams here, and not a whole lot to worry about from either return game.
I still believe in Matt Coghlin, and hopefully making that short kick last week will get him back on track. If he struggles again this week, then I would be concerned.
This feels like a push, but the Spartans need to clean up the sloppiness overall on special teams. No fumbles, no turnovers, and no major mistakes has to be the goal this week. Indiana is better equipped to take advantage of an MSU mistake that sets them up with a short field. Let’s all hope things get cleaned up this week.