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Stinky special teams put Spartans in big holes

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Northwestern's Solomon Vault returns a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown against Michigan State.

East Lansing – For a team that’s lost four straight, it’s hard to narrow down some of the things that have gone wrong.

That’s the case for Michigan State as it prepares to try to end its four-game slide when it travels to Maryland on Saturday. But one aspect that certainly has had its issues in the first half of the season is special teams.

It’s run the gamut, from poor snaps and missed field goals to shanked punts and now, a kickoff return for a touchdown that squashed any momentum Michigan State (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) built in the second half last week against Northwestern.

“It is frustrating, and it starts with the guy’s ability to kick the ball,” said Mark Snyder, Michigan State’s special teams coordinator. “That’s where the confidence starts, with the guy actually returning and kicking the ball. You’ve got the pieces around them that kind of make the engine go, but the first part of it is, you can’t kick the ball out of bounds. You’ve got to hit your field goals and those kind of things. You can’t punt to good returners. It starts there, the rest should come into place if those things are in place.”

Those things have hardly been in place.

When it comes to the kickers, they’ve all struggled. Senior Michael Geiger booted two field goals against Northwestern but was 2-for-5 before that. Senior kickoff specialist Kevin Cronin has kicked the ball out of bounds four times this season and sophomore punter Jake Hartbarger has battled consistency issues all season, booting a 61-yard punt last week against Northwestern but managing just a 42-yard kick that was returned 13 yards following a safety by the Wildcats.

And, of course, the 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown immediately after Michigan State had cut the Northwestern lead to two points was the real killer.

It all has Michigan State struggling to find any consistency with its special teams.

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“You got to look at everything,” coach Mark Dantonio said. “I think Geiger has kicked well the last couple weeks. I think Jake has been pretty solid as a punter. Didn't like the way he punted after a safety, but I think he's been very solid.

“We just address the things as we see it, ask ourselves if it's scheme or execution, then we have to make changes if it's one or the other.”

The return game has also been an issue. It hasn’t led to drastic problems in games, but the Spartans lack any sort of explosiveness on both kickoff and punt returns. They changed return men at times on kickoffs, using freshman Donnie Corley late last week in place of R.J. Shelton, and on punts they’ve used Shelton and sophomore Brandon Sowards.

Snyder said there’s a chance Corley could keep getting more work on kick returns, but he points to some bad luck on punts. Often, punts are left to hit the ground and Michigan State is losing significant yardage. The change last week was to put Sowards and Shelton back.

“We’re kind of getting to that point where you want to get those guys staggered so if he does boom it you’ve got a guy to catch it, and if he does muff it you’ve got a guy to catch it,” Snyder said. “And like you saw R.J. on the second one, he was the short returner, he fair caught the ball and we got the ball on what, about the 50? If we don’t have two returners back there that ball may roll and go to the 30.”

And when you’re losing, it almost always bounces the wrong way. The Spartans believe the special teams can be a difference, but after six games, it hasn’t turned out that way. Getting it turned around could be the key to finding that elusive victory.

“It’s kind of been that kind of year so far,” Snyder said. “We’re still waiting for the explosive to happen with that group.”

Michigan State at Maryland

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Maryland Stadium, College Park, Maryland

TV/radio: BTN/WJR

Line: Michigan State by 2.5

Records: Michigan State 2-4 (0-3 Big Ten), Maryland 4-2 (1-2)

Series: Michigan State leads 6-1 (MSU 24-7, Nov. 14, 2015)

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter @mattcharboneau