Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio discusses the loss to Ohio State. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio has often said he believes the punt is the most important play in football.
Sometimes it seems like a bit of an exaggeration, but on Saturday as Michigan State 24th in AP poll, 18th in CFP) hosted Ohio State (No. 8 AP, No. 10 CFP), the Spartans’ coach nailed it. The only problem was that it was the Buckeyes who fared best on the “most important play” of the game.
That’s because Ohio State punter Drue Chrisman might have been the game’s MVP. He punted nine times for an average of just 37.8 yards, but that number doesn’t tell the story. In a game of field position, Chrisman had five straight punts that were downed inside the Michigan State 6.
“We were just playing the field position game,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “We kicked it five times inside their 6-yard line. In those conditions, that was the difference. We always talk about the offense's job is to get two first downs, get to midfield then get inside the 10-yard line. I can't imagine a group of guys that works harder than our gunners.”
All five of the punts came in the third quarter and on four of those drives Michigan State failed to gain a first down. The only time the Spartans managed to gain many yards they moved down the field and kicked a field goal to cut the Ohio State lead to 7-6.
However, that was it. Two drives later Michigan State started at its 1 and on first down a shotgun snap hit wide receiver Laress Nelson in motion. The Buckeyes recovered for a touchdown and the Spartans never threatened from there.
“They're on top of us right there,” Dantonio said. “We had a fair catch on the 6 and I don't think we really want to start any earlier than that, so odds are the ball should bounce into the end zone more often than not. They did a great job and I do think we were put in situations where (we played) punt safe a number of times because it's fourth-and-4, whatever, fourth-and-5 starting from the 40 or 50 and you have limited rush on the punter. So, he holds it so the guys get down there faster and he put it up there so give him credit for that.
“That's part of the game, but we'll go back and be like ‘Hey, should we rush the punters?’ And you're sitting there thinking of possible fakes and other things of that nature. The odds are probably that their gunners are still getting down there who got us to make some plays.”
Michigan State’s punting game wasn’t as good, but the Spartans have settled in on their fourth punter.
Jake Hartbarger and Tyler Hunt were lost to injuries and since then, walk-on Bryce Baringer has been taking care of things. On Saturday, though, freshman Will Przystup took over and punted well, hitting a pair of 50-yarders.
Przystup was also in when Dantonio opted to snap the ball over his head purposely and take a safety with MSU trailing by one and the ball at its 1.
“We may have the most depth at punter in the nation,” Dantonio said. “But William's never punted before until this game, and it felt like coming off the goal line with only 10 yards between the snap and the punter, there's an opportunity for the punt to be blocked and it's still a one field-goal game, and I felt like our defense was playing well enough.
“I didn't want him to handle the ball nor did I want to take the timeout and tell our offense we're going to kneel on it, so I just told them to snap the snap through the end zone and even with that William asked, ‘Should I catch it?’ I said, ‘No.’ So, it's difficult for him.”
Overall, Dantonio was happy with how Przystup performed.
“I thought he did a nice job punting,” Dantonio said. “He had some big punts there for big yardage. … I thought that he did an outstanding job for never having punted in a college football game. It was quite a feat I would say.”