Special Teams Must Be More Special

Special Teams Must Be More Special

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Special Teams Must Be More Special

Jake Hartbarger and Matt Coghlin have the Spartans in good shape when it comes to punting and field goal kicking. But Michigan State needs to find magic in its return game – the kickoff and punt returns haven’t been all that special.

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The special names for the special moments created by the Special Teams have all become well known to all Spartans.

Little Giants.

Mousetrap.

Rangers: Mission 4:10.

And our favorite name – Hey, Diddle Diddle.

That last one is the name of a sometimes-overlooked trick play that the Spartans executed to perfection in the 2013 Big Ten Championship season at Lincoln as Michigan State was trying to seal a win against Nebraska.

Remember – up until this point, Michigan State hadn’t ever won a football game at Nebraska.

Ever.

By the middle of November, Michigan State had reached #14 in the rankings, UMAA had been properly and thoroughly dispatched, and the Big Ten Championship was beginning to creep into the program’s consciousness.

Early in the 4th quarter of that game in Lincoln, Michigan State lined up on 4th and 1 to give Michael Geiger a shot at a 45-yard field goal attempt with the 9-1 Spartans leading 27-21.

However, when Spartan legend Mike Sadler – the holder at the time – took the snap, Sadler bolted up and……sort of….pranced…..straight ahead with the ball, gaining a first down and extending the drive for Michigan State.

We’d give just about anything to laugh with Sadler right now about the prancing that led to the first down and played a major hand in this major victory.

Go to the 4:25 mark here to see Hey Diddle Diddle –

Three plays later, Connor Cook connected with Keith Mumphrey on a 27-yard touchdown pass to give the Spartans a 34-21 lead in what would end up being a 41-28 victory.

After the game, Mark Dantonio was asked about the decision to go for the first down with that fake that Sadler executed beautifully.

As Dantonio spoke to the press about the decision, someone asked him what the name of the trick play was.

Dantonio was deadpan with his response, “Hey, Diddle Diddle…..”

There was a brief pause as Dantonio showed his familiar smirk.

“What’s the meaning for that one?” shouted a reporter.

Dantonio replied, “….Sadler Up The Middle.”

Laughter.

Sadler himself spoke self-deprecatingly – with that smart wit that we all miss – about how he was especially proud of the way he ran almost completely upright through the line and was tackled by practically being blown over by the Huskers.

But the first down was gained, the play worked to perfection, and it contributed substantially to one of the key wins of that Big Ten Championship season.

For as magical as those moments have been for Michigan State, it’s fair to say that there has been one area of the Special Teams unit that hasn’t delivered many stirring moments over the last few years – returns.

Take a look at last season’s stats for kickoff and punt returns –

Kickoff returns – 21.4 yards, 7th in the Big Ten.

Punt returns – 3.9 yards yards, 13th in the Big Ten.

Zero touchdowns.

As we’ve pointed out over these last few weeks, the 2017 statistical finishes for the Spartans in a lot of categories aren’t particularly impressive.

And if Michigan State wants to compete for the Big Ten Championship – and beyond – this season, it’s going to need to come up with some magic in the return game.

Spartans who seem to be the likeliest to generate that magic are Connor Heyward, Darrell Stewart, Laress, Nelson, and maybe even Cody White.

Perhaps Cam Chambers can provide some energy.

By the end of the 2017 season, Heyward had sort of taken control of the return game with strong performances against Minnesota and Penn State – he returned three kicks for 115 yards against the Gophers and four kicks against Penn State for 100 yards.

Over the whole season, however, Heyward averaged 21.8 yards on 20 kickoff returns.

Darrell Stewart averaged 25.3 yards on six kickoff returns.

Here’s the most glaring stat from 2017 when looking at the overall return game – zero touchdowns.

Would you believe that Michigan State hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown since Keshawn Martin took a punt back against Wisconsin in 2011?

Would you believe that Michigan State hasn’t returned a kickoff for a touchdown since RJ Shelton opened up the game against Penn State with a return for six in 2014?

The overall “return” game (combined average of the kickoff and punt return game) over the last five years has finished each season this way:

2017 – 7th in the Big Ten.

2016 – 12th in the Big Ten.

2015 – 13th in the Big Ten.

2014 – 8th in the Big Ten.

2013 – 12th (last at the time) in the Big Ten.

Michigan State doesn’t need to lead the Big Ten in the return game – there are two Big Ten Championships that go along with the pedestrian return game stats we’ve listed above.

But if this program wants to get back to the College Football Playoff, it needs to be firing on all cylinders.

How about a Top 5 finish in returns the Big Ten this season?

If Michigan State was able to finish the 2017 5th or better in the Big Ten in the returns category, I’d venture to guess that it would be one component of a “firing on all cylinders” season for the Spartans.

And, in honor of SpartansWire going out on a limb here and saying that odds are 11/6 that Michigan State will, indeed, finish in the Top 5 in the “returns” category, we’re showcasing a clip that features Barry Jive & The Uptown Five from the sensational motion picture, “High Fidelity.”

Jack Black – it’s your karma from this virtuosic performance that is going to send the right kinetic energies and harbingers to the Michigan State Special Teams unit that will lead to a Top 5 finish in “returns.”

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