No easy fix for Michigan State’s special teams

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State’s special teams have been anything but this season.

The final play of last weekend’s victory over Michigan aside, Michigan State’s kicking units have been the biggest concern, more so than the multiple injuries on offense and defense.

And there is no magic answer in how to get things turned around.

“Got to be better,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “After seven games, there’s no other way to say it except to say it.”

There have been multiple problems:

■ Michigan State allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the opener at Western Michigan and a punt return for a score the next week against Oregon.

■ Junior kicker Michael Geiger is 5-for-9 on field goals, even missing from inside 30 yards.

■ Redshirt freshman punter Jake Hartbarger has struggled and has been replaced by backup quarterback Tyler O’Connor. Neither was good against Michigan as Jabrill Peppers benefited from low line-drive kicks, returning three punts for 81 yards.

That sort of performance from the punters clouded the fact the coverage units have improved after allowing the touchdown returns in the first two weeks.

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“Our coverage units have been good,” linebackers coach and special teams coordinator Mark Snyder said. “We’ve just put them in bad situations. You go back and look at the film, what can you say? Punting the ball to a really good returner with 2.5 (seconds) hang time, you can’t survive like that.

“We’ve just got to get better all the way across the board.”

Dantonio said the decision to go with O’Connor as the primary punter was as much about experience in big games as it was the threat of a fake, which Michigan State attempted in the third quarter but failed.

But entering the season, O’Connor hadn’t attempted a punt in a game. After Hartbarger struggled against Purdue, however, O’Connor kicked twice at Rutgers and all but once against Michigan.

“Tyler’s got moxie,” Snyder said. “He’s a quarterback, so that doesn’t bother him. We could go to practice and send 20 (defenders) at him and it’s not gonna bother him.”

Whoever ends up punting and kicking, quick improvement is a necessity.

“I think it’s confidence psychology, basically,” Dantonio said. “I think all of our specialists have the skills. They have just got to get back in rhythm. So that’s the first thing.”

None of those struggles could dampen the joy over how the “Rangers” unit came through on the final play against Michigan. Matt Morrissey and Grayson Miller pressured Michigan punter Blake O’Neill after he fumbled the snap, and that led to the ball getting knocked into the hands of Jalen Watts-Jackson, who returned it 38 yards for the winning touchdown.

Snyder said the Spartans went into the game thinking they could get to the punter, a rugby-style kicker from Australia in his first season.

“You’ve got to catch the ball to execute a punt or a throw or whatever it is, and when you haven’t had experience doing that, there’s a certain amount of nerves involved,” Snyder said. “And that comes with experience.

“We said going into that game we were gonna go after this guy because he hadn’t played a lot of football. We pulled off him a couple times. We were close and we might have gotten him if we left our feet.”

It all paid off on the final play, which led to a rather boisterous press box as Snyder and the other group of assistants not on the field erupted in celebration.

“Euphoria,” Snyder said. “Lot of screaming and hugging. … When I saw the ball come out low and he bobbled it, I knew it was over.”

Indiana at Michigan State

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing

Records: Indiana 4-3 (0-3 Big Ten), No. 7 Michigan State 7-0 (3-0)

TV/radio: ABC/WJR

Line: Michigan State by 16

Series: Michigan State leads 44-15-2