I thought maybe it had. The last month had suggested maybe that it had. It has not.
After getting nailed for back to back return touchdowns (one on a kickoff and one on a punt) in the Western Michigan and Oregon games, Michigan State had noticeably improved their coverage units in the 4 games between the Oregon and Michigan contests. Against Air Force, Central Michigan, Rutgers and Purdue the Spartans conceded:
-260 kick return yards on 17 tries (15.3 per KR attempt)
-and negative one yard on just two total punt return attempts
Other things were still going wrong on special teams (Geiger still couldn’t hit FGs, and the Spartan’s kicking portion of punting was suddenly a mess [maybe this explains the two returns…]), but this thing was now going right.
Enter Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers. He was always going to present a stiffer challenge to the Spartans than previous return men, but it was hoped not like this.
Following a Spartan touchdown to knot the game up at seven apiece, Peppers rips up the sideline for a 49 yard return that sets up an eventual mid-range Michigan field goal. Nicholson who is again the fastest Spartan down the field and seems to be encouraged to fly in there and make the returner think twice, does not. Miller goes the wrong direction to prevent a cutback leaving not enough Spartan defenders to stop the Wolverine blockers. This is well blocked and a hat is put on every hat so to speak, forcing Cox to run this play down on the sideline from the other side of the field.
Right before the half, Peppers then grabs 34 yards on a low-hangtime punt from Tyler O’Conner that reaches the return man’s hands long before any of O’Connor’s gunners can get close. Peppers turns the corner and goes up the sideline, setting up the Wolverines with a golden chance to add to their 3 point lead, in Spartan territory, an opportunity they thankfully declined.
Finally, with the Spartans backed up deep, Peppers fields a weak punt on the run on Michigan State’s side of the field, evades the miserable angles of the two nearby Spartans who had a shot at him, maybe(?) benefits from a block in the back, then darts 16 yards upfield to set up a second mid-range field goal that gives the Wolverines their final three points of the game.
In total, he accounted for 129 return yards in just six returns (good for 21.5 yards of field position per) with teammate Jehu Chesson grabbing a 25 yard return of his own (and also nearly catastrophically fumbling a squib kick).
In a game where they needed to choke off every point, the Spartan kick coverage units set-up six Michigan points, and probably should’ve conceded more had their defense not held up the Wolverine offense, after each of the three breakdowns. After close calls against Oregon and Purdue, this finally seemed like the game where a crucial special teams mistake might sink an otherwise good performance, and it so nearly was.
Compounding issues on kick-offs, less than one out of every five kick-offs is going out for a touchback, giving opponents plenty of opportunities to test Michigan State’s coverage unit.
While most future returners will lack the skills of Peppers, this is an issue once more. Indiana’s kick-return unit is nothing special, but punt returner Mitchell Paige returned one punt for a touchdown earlier this season against Western Kentucky.