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Meet the Spartans: Special teams

The following is the last of five installments of The Stanford Daily’s “Meet the Spartans” series, which will give an in-depth look at Michigan State leading into the 100th Rose Bowl Game between No. 4 Michigan State and No. 5 Stanford on Jan. 1. Today’s piece will focus on the Spartans’ special teams.

The low-down: Michigan State has benefited from breakout freshman placekicker Michael Geiger’s consistency, but it lacks playmakers in the return game. The Spartans’ average of 19.2 yards on kick returns is 99th in Division I, and they haven’t taken a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown all season. Still, Michigan State is at least respectable in kick coverage and hasn’t allowed a return touchdown, either.

True freshman kicker Michael Geiger has been rock-solid for the Spartans this year, making 14 of his 15 field goals and 33 of his 35 PATs. (Michigan State Athletics)

True freshman kicker Michael Geiger has been rock-solid for the Spartans this year, making 14 of his 15 field goals and 33 of his 35 PATs. (Michigan State Athletics)

Best player: Geiger, who entered the year as the nation’s best kicking recruit (according to Rivals), has delivered on 14 of his 15 field goal attempts this season. The true freshman even earned College Football Awards’ National Placekicker of the Week honors after the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State, a contest in which he came through from 40 and 44 yards out. Geiger has also sent 33 of his 35 point-after attempts on the year through the uprights.

Best performance: Geiger made four field goals, one of them from 49 yards out, in an Oct. 5 win at Iowa. Punter Mike Sadler also pinned the Hawkeyes within their own 20-yard line twice (and a third punt was fair caught at the 20), while the Spartans averaged 17.7 yards on their three punt returns. However, the win did include Geiger’s only missed field goal of the year.

Worst performance: Michigan State has been incredibly consistent on special teams. Sadler has pinned each Spartans opponent inside the 20 at least once, and Geiger’s numbers speak for themselves. The only blip, small as it may be, came in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State, when Sadler had a fourth-quarter punt blocked (though it wasn’t recorded as a blocked punt by the official scorer).

Highlights of the season: Early in the Spartans’ only loss of the season, Michigan State took advantage of a high Notre Dame snap to block an Irish punt.

In Michigan State’s next game, Sadler rushed for 25 yards on a fake punt to convert a fourth-and-7.

Biggest questions: Will the Spartans’ special teams unit be able to flip the field against the Cardinal? In last year’s Rose Bowl slugfest against Wisconsin, the Cardinal’s success in the punting game helped it win the field position battle against the Badgers in the second half. Given that the Spartans haven’t broken many long returns, will Stanford be able to repeat that script in what could be another low-scoring game?

Matchup with Stanford: There isn’t anything obvious for the Cardinal to exploit, but it’s clear that Stanford has the upper hand in this area. Ty Montgomery has paced the Card to a nation-best 27.8-yard average on kick returns. That gives Stanford a significant advantage against any team, and the Spartans are no exception; they haven’t faced a single opponent that ranks in the top 20 nationally in that category. Though Geiger has shown a little bit more consistency than the Cardinal’s Jordan Williamson — and much more consistency than the recently injured senior’s backup, Conrad Ukropina — a playmaker like Montgomery can make field goals obsolete in a hurry, and Michigan State probably won’t be able to one-up Stanford’s speedster.

Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a senior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.