Ohio State football: Special teams could provide edge in top 10 matchup

Ohio State linebacker Palaie Goateote celebrates recovering a fumble against Purdue during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Caption
Ohio State linebacker Palaie Goateote celebrates recovering a fumble against Purdue during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Credit: Jay LaPrete

Credit: Jay LaPrete

Buckeyes host Michigan State Spartans at noon Saturday

COLUMBUS -- Ohio State football’s No. 1 offense and up-and-down defense gets most of the attention, but the special teams have been excellent all year.

The Buckeyes are averaging twice as many yards per kickoff return (28.6) as they have allowed (14.2), and true freshman Emeka Egbuka has set the Buckeyes up with a short field multiple times.

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North Carolina transfer Noah Ruggles has not missed a kick, hitting all 16 of his field goal attempts and 57 PATs, while letting only one of his 81 kickoffs go out of bounds (a bugaboo for the Buckeyes over the last few years).

The punt team has allowed five returns for 24 yards with no touchbacks, and new punter Jesse Mirco, the latest import from Australia, has pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line 14 times in 24 punts.

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day gave much of the credit to first-year special teams coordinator Parker Fleming, who was promoted to the full-time staff in the offseason.

“Parker Fleming has stepped in and done a very good job to this point,’’ Day said Tuesday. “He has put a scheme together, and we brought in a new kicker and new punter. I think the guys on special teams take a lot of pride. It’s a real good core of guys, a mix of veterans and new guys.’’

Of course, having talented players helps as much on special teams as any other area of the team.

Starters frequently contribute, but over the years special teams have provided a place for talented youngsters whose path to the field on offense or defense might be blocked to get valuable experience.

Day said the coaching staff has come up with ways to foster skill development while practicing special teams, too.

“You don’t come here to play special teams, and so the challenge is how do you motivate players to want to play special teams?’’ Day said. “There are two things here: First off, we let our best players play. We show clips of some of the great players Ohio State has had and how they cut their teeth playing special teams.

“The second thing is when you teach special teams, you are learning football. It’s all about ball. You are learning how to take on a block, you are learning skills and fundamentals that you are going to use at your position.’’

What impact might special teams have on a top 10 matchup with Michigan State this week?

Advanced stats like the Buckeyes.

They rank No. 1 in the country in special teams SP+, a metric that measures play-by-play efficiency and ability to create or prevent big plays, while the Spartans are 102nd.

Pro Football Focus ranks Ohio State ninth in special teams while MSU is 118th.

As for individuals, Michigan State punter Bryce Baringer leads the Big Ten with a net average of 49.4, though he has let eight of his 44 punts go into the end zone and only had 13 downed inside the 20.

Veteran kicker Matt Coghlin is 10 for 15 on field goals this season, but he has been dealing with an unidentified injury recently and only kicked extra points last week as the Spartans beat Maryland.

Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed is second in the Big Ten with a kick return average of 25.3 yards, and he is one of three players in the country with a pair of punt return touchdowns this season.

That should keep the Buckeyes attention this week, though Day indicated that has not been a problem so far.

“The walkthroughs before a game that we’ve had in the hotel before the game or wherever we’re at are as sharp and as real as I’ve ever seen,’’ Day said. “They have a huge edge to them and they bounce around. They are really on point. They take their jobs very, very seriously, and that’s winning football.’’

SATURDAY’S GAME

Michigan State at Ohio State, Noon, ABC, 1410

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