Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Sun Devils boast the nation’s best punting average through two games.
It was another solid performance all around from the MSU special teams in their blowout win over Western Michigan last week. The unit has proven to be a strength through the first two games of the year, and really should be a positive for them all season long barring injury.
Arizona State comes to East Lansing with a pretty decent special teams group of their own. Remember that the Spartans lost on a last second field goal in Tempe last season and lost Jake Hartbarger for the year on a hit after the play was blown dead. Hopefully better things await MSU’s third phase this time around.
Matt Coghlin just keeps on making kicks. The junior kicker made three more field goals and six extra points in the win over Western. He is 7-for-7 on field goals and 8-for-8 on extra points for the season. McMuffin is now the tenth Spartan kicker with 40 career field goals and he is closing in on some big names in Hans Nielsen, Morten Anderson, and Paul Edinger.
Coghlin still boasts a school best 83.3% field goal conversion rate and a perfect extra point percentage. Really the only thing surprising is when he doesn’t make it at this point.
The Sun Devils are rolling with sophomore kicker Cristian Zendejas so far this season, and he is off to a very good start.
Zendejas is 7-for-7 on field goals and 4-for-4 on extra points. His long field goal attempt is 40 yards. He is the reigning PAC-12 Special Teams Player of the Week after going 4-for-4 on field goals in ASU’s win over Sacramento State.
Pretty good for a guy who is filling in for two year starter Brandon Ruiz, who was one of the best kickers in the nation last year making 18-of-22 field goals and all 45 extra points. Ruiz had the game winner against MSU, but has missed the first two games of the year with a muscle strain.
Poor Jake Hartbarger only got a chance to punt once last week against Western Michigan, his fewest attempts in a game since the Rutgers game in 2017.
The one punt he did have traveled 42 yards, and was fumbled on the return and recovered by MSU, who punched it in four plays later to put the Spartans over the half-century mark.
For the season Hartbarger is averaging 46.50 yards per punt and remains a great weapon in the field position game. But if it’s all the same, I don’t mind him not having to punt until late in the fourth quarter every week.
If you love punting, and let’s be honest what B1G fan doesn’t, than you will love this matchup. Sophomore transfer Michael Turk is currently leading the nation in punting average for Arizona State, averaging 55.30 yards per punt. And it’s not a small sample size either, as he has had ten punts already this year.
Turk was named the Ray Guy National Punter of the Week in week one after averaging 63(!) yards per punt on five punts, dropping three of them inside the 20-yard line, with a long of 75 yards.
Last week was ho-hum compared to that, as he averaged a mere 47.6 yards per punt with a long of 58 yards and still dropped three of five inside the 20-yard line.
Turk’s father was former NFL punter Matt Turk, who played 19 years in the league and was a three-time Pro-Bowler. Obviously he has passed down the secrets of punting to his son.
It was not a great day on kick returns for MSU last week against Western, but part of that was because one weird return through the whole average off.
Darrell Stewart handled the first two kickoffs and averaged 20.5 yards per return with a long of 25 yards. No real issues there.
Then late in the game Julian Barnett got a shot at a kickoff return and hesitated on whether to down it or bring it out and by the time he decided he wanted to down it, he was already moving out of the endzone. That resulted in a seven yard return and killed the average for the day. A freshman mistake that he will surely learn from.
The Sun Devils have not been great in kickoff coverage so far this year, allowing 24.86 yards per return, ranking 99th in the country in that department.
Meanwhile, Arizona State has attempted only one kickoff return so far this season, and it went for zero yards. That, shockingly, has them worst in the country in that department.
They weren’t great last year either, ranking 87th overall and averaging 19.41 yards per kickoff return.
Brandon Aiyuk was the primary kick returner last year and averaged a respectable 22.60 yards per return.
So far the Spartans kick coverage has been mediocre, checking in at 90th overall allowing 22.44 yards per return. Western averaged 23 yards per return last week, with Mixon breaking off a 34-yarder for a long.
With Jalen Nailor on the shelf for the forseable future, the punt return duties fell to Cody White once again. White is a safe choice and certainly has the ability to make a big play in the return game, but I do worry about him taking extra shots.
White had one attempt last week and had a nice 10 yard return. For his career he has 15 returns for an average of 4.5 yards per return.
The Sun Devils have allowed five returns this year for a total of 25 yards giving them a nice even average of five yards per return, good for 50th in the nation.
The aforementioned Brandon Aiyuk appears to be the lead punt returner this year after sharing the role with N’Keal Harry last season. Aiyuk has three punt returns so far this year and is averaging 13 yards per return, including a career long 38 yard return last week against Sacramento State.
Michigan State has allowed five punt returns this year and is giving up just 3.60 yards per return, so once again, Hartbarger has really limited return attempts.
MSU made a change last week at kickoff specialist and let freshman walk-on Evan Morris give it a try. He answered by averaging over 60 yards per kickoff and had four touchbacks out of nine kickoffs.
This was a big improvement over the week one performance of Cole Hahn, who averaged just over 56 yards per kick and had only one touchback, to go with one kick out of bounds.
The Sun Devils haven’t been great in this area either, coming in at 103rd in touchbacks with only three on 13 kickoffs. And that is playing all of those games in thin aired Tempe.
These are two pretty evenly matched units. Both kickers have been perfect to start the season, although Coghlin has more experience. But if Ruiz returns it’s a wash in that area.
Both punters have been excellent, with Turk being otherworldly to start the year. That feels like a push as well.
Neither team has done much in the kick return game, although Brandon Aiyuk might be a slightly more explosive returner than either Stewart or White.
This feels like a total push on paper in the special teams units. The way they could come in to play more is if someone makes a mistake and turns it over on special teams, or if someone dials up a fake for a big play at a key time. Outside of that, it’s a pretty even match.