East Lansing — Special teams have been one of Michigan State’s biggest concerns, and with the most important part of the schedule ready to begin, it’s an area the Spartans hope they have shored up.
It was a difficult start as Michigan State allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the opener at Western Michigan and an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown the next week against Oregon.
But while the return game has improved, the kicking game has been a problem.
Junior kicker Michael Geiger is 6-for-10 on field goals, and the Spartans have passed up situations in recent weeks that seemed like good opportunities to attempt a field goal.
And, redshirt freshman punter Jake Hartbarger started on a strong note, but began to struggle once Big Ten play began. By the time Michigan State played Rutgers, backup quarterback Tyler O’Connor was rotating in as punter. Against Michigan, O’Connor kicked all but one time before Hartbarger was back against Indiana.
Hartbarger has a bigger leg than O’Connor, with a long of 56 yards. But he’s been inconsistent.
“I think it’s about building confidence,” said Mark Snyder, Michigan State’s special teams coordinator. “You’ve got to give them confidence. They are kicking really well right now.”
While O’Connor took some of the punts, that would be tougher to do with the field goals, considering Kevin Cronin, the other kicker available, never has attempted a field goal in a game. Not to mention, Geiger is the same kicker who missed once as a true freshman in 2013.
It leaves the staff trying to get the best out of Geiger and Hartbarger with four games left in the regular season, a stretch that could determine whether Michigan State gets back to the Big Ten championship game with a shot at reaching the playoffs.
“You have to be careful with that,” Snyder said. “It’s a different mindset with those guys. ... It’s about confidence. You can’t bear down on them too much and threaten them and those kind of things or they’re going to lose their confidence.”
Backups lack work
Connor Cook is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, but he’ll be gone after this season. And one of the drawbacks of Michigan State winning close games has been the fact none of the backups have gotten any work.
O’Connor took one snap against Indiana when Cook was hurt, and sophomore Damion Terry has played a handful of plays as a running threat. But neither has gotten any significant work.
“Those are situations you hope for during the season, but reality is each of these games have been tight,” quarterbacks coach Brad Salem said. “Maybe it was Air Force there was a situation where we were ready to put Tyler in and then they scored and it didn’t happen. We’ve just had to play through four quarters.”
O’Connor and Terry will be battling for the starting spot next season, while freshman Brian Lewerke also will get a shot. Lewerke has spent most of his time with the scout team, but Salem sees progress.
“You’re able to see him throw against our defense in similar concepts in certain weeks to different offenses,” Salem said. “He throws the ball well, anticipates windows.”
Martinez may debut
Sophomore linebacker Drake Martinez (injury) could see his first action Saturday when Michigan State travels to Nebraska.
“He hasn’t practiced much, he hasn’t played much,” Snyder said. “But we can definitely throw him in on some special teams situations, kickoff teams, punt return. He’s a big, strong athlete. If he is able to go, we’ll marry him in a little bit that way and maybe some on our third-down package.”
Michigan State at Nebraska
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Memorial Stadium, Lincoln, Neb.
Line: Michigan State by 5
Records: No. 7 Michigan State 8-0 (4-0 Big Ten), Nebraska 3-6 (1-4)
Series: Nebraska leads 7-2 (Michigan State 27-22, Oct. 14, 2014)