Michigan State vs. Ohio State: Could Spartans' Special Teams Be the Difference?

Andrew CoppensContributor IDecember 2, 2013

Nov 16, 2013; Lincoln, NE, USA; Michigan State Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio talks to quarterback Connor Cook (18) prior to the game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

In a Big Ten Championship Game that features so many star-quality players on both sides of the ball, perhaps the biggest difference-makers to take the field on Saturday are understandably being overlooked—Michigan State's special teams.

For Michigan State, special teams have been a massive weapon all season long, and it could be the difference between winning and losing on Saturday night in Indianapolis. 

While everyone will be talking about Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde, Connor Cook and Jeremy Langford, little talked about MSU punter Mike Sadler could be the biggest weapon on the field. 

Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio sees Sadler as a big weapon and the punting game in general as an important tool in winning football games, saying as much at his weekly press conference last week, via the team's website:

We've got to have - if you're going to be a good football team you've got to have a good punt game. You have to. I think that's probably the most important single play in football because it has to do with most of the field position that can be gotten consistently. You should pick up X amount of yards per punt, 40 plus, and we've been able to do that. Or put them in bad field position.

Sadler sure fits that bill, ranking third in the Big Ten with an average of 42.9 yards a punt, but more than his average, it's about how good of a directional kicker he is. 

He has also put 29 of his 65 punts inside the 20-yard line and 22 of those 29 inside the 10-yard line. 

That alone is a big weapon for the Spartans, and Dantonio called it an art form that Sadler has mastered:

I think he's done that (kicking inside the 20-yard line) as well as anybody in America, if not better. He's learned that turning the ball over and having it go end over end. But he just has the right rhythm on it, the right spin, and he's extremely confident in getting it down there, and then when he has to step back and boom one, you know he's punting 55 yards or 60 yards. He's a tremendous weapon for us.

Those numbers are tops in the Big Ten, where the next closest punter in dropping kicks inside the 20-yard line was Iowa's Connor Kornbrath with 26. 

Oct 12, 2013; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans punter Mike Sadler (3) kicks the ball to Indiana Hoosiers during the second half in a game at Spartan Stadium. MSU won 42-28. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Even further evidence of how important Sadler is comes when you look at what happened after those punts. 

Eighteen of the 29 possessions following punts inside the 20-yard line resulted in three-and-outs for the opposition. Just one of those possessions ended in a score of any kind, and that was a field goal.

Michigan State's defense got one fumble off of the opposition following Sadler's kicks inside the 20, and the opposition had just nine possessions go further than a three-and-out. 

Those results also speak to the strength of Michigan State's defense, but it worked in concert with Sadler's ability to back opponents against the wall to be successful. 

Sadler isn't the only weapon, though, as the kicking game and return game are all quality as well. 

Mike Geiger, Michigan State's freshman kicker, ranks first in the Big Ten in field-goal percentage—hitting 92.3 percent (12 of 13) of his field-goal attempts. 

His long on the year was 49 yards, which is tied for the third longest of the year in the Big Ten. Not only is that his long, but Geiger has hit six of six field goals from 40 to 49 yards this season. 

The return game is also a weapon for the Spartans, especially in the punt return game. Sophomore Macgarrett Kings Jr. has returned 16 punts this season, and his 10.6 yards per return average is third in the Big Ten. 

With Michigan State's defense doing such a good job of holding opponents out of the end zone, its kick return unit has had only 15 opportunities this season—the lowest of any Big Ten team and not surprisingly ranking them last in kick return average at 18.4 yards a game. 

Having an accurate field-goal kicker, an all-around punter and a return game that's effective when its defense stops opponents add up to a team that has special teams as a priority in its game plan.

Michigan State would like to score touchdowns every time it gets the ball, but having weapons in nearly all facets of special teams could be a difference-maker in a game that could come down to a few plays. 


*Andy Coppens is Bleacher Report's lead writer for the Big Ten. You can follow him on Twitter: @ andycoppens