EAST LANSING, Mich. — Spartan Stadium was filled with more than 75,000 green-and-white faithful Saturday, minus a pocket of purple in the upper east-side deck. A day that had started well with the energy and emotion of Homecoming had turned sour as the visitors from Northwestern had run off 26 straight points, only to brighten back up as Michigan State fought back with a pair of long touchdown passes to pull within two points at 33-31 with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Ten years ago, that Michigan State team had come back from a 35-point deficit in the third quarter to stun Northwestern on the road. This deficit had only been 16 points. The symmetry of the story was too good not to play out.
Then Solomon Vault changed the narrative back in favor of Northwestern with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, silencing the crowd with the exception of that purple pocket in the upper deck.
Vault’s touchdown gave Northwestern a two-score advantage, a margin the Wildcats never relinquished in the 54-40 Spartans loss, their fourth consecutive defeat.
The touchdown also encapsulated just how very un-special Michigan State’s special teams have been this season.
The role of the special teams is to help dictate field position through the transition from offense to defense and vice versa. Coaches call these hidden yards. Vault’s return was out in the open for all to see, but more than just providing Northwestern with another seven points, the touchdown gave the Spartans another reason to doubt themselves.
Special teams should give you a reason to believe.
Michigan State’s units this season have made you just hope for the best.
“It’s a whole circle,” Michigan State wide receiver R.J. Shelton said. “Offense has to click, defense has to click and specials has to make plays. We have to make plays on special teams. We have to shore that up. It’s one team. We can’t look at one particular thing.”
When the other two areas area are struggling, special teams can be a boost as they were when the Spartans got off to a quick start.
The opening possession with redshirt freshman quarterback Brian Lewerke making his first start stalled at the Northwestern 37-yard line. It was a spot where Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio could’ve gone for a fourth-down conversion but a first down was another seven yards away.
Dantonio sent out the punt team and was rewarded when Jake Hartbarger’s well-placed kick was downed by T.J. Harrell at the 1-yard line. Northwestern gained just four yards on its first three plays and punted the ball back. Shelton took the punt with a fair catch at the Northwestern 39. Hidden yards in favor of the Spartans on that exchange, and they converted with the first touchdown three plays later on a 15-yard pass from Lewerke to senior tight end Josiah Price.
A special teams mistake by sophomore Brandon Sowards, the first of two big mistakes by him, helped get Northwestern back into the game after Michigan State was up 14-0 in the first quarter. Sowards failed to come up quickly enough on a short punt. It hit the ground at the Michigan State 36, bounced past Sowards and rolled all the way to the 10. Hidden yards to Northwestern.
Sowards was called for an illegal block in the back on a Shelton kickoff return in the second quarter, wiping out what would have been starting field position at the 29. Instead, the Spartans started at their own 5 and the possession ended with Lewerke being sacked in the end zone for a safety. The Wildcats added a field goal off the ensuing free kick back to them to take 19-17 lead to halftime.
Hidden yards and valuable points to Northwestern.
The Spartans rank No. 5 in the Big Ten in net punting average (punting yards minus return yards) and are No. 7 in punt return average. They are 12th in both kickoff returns and kickoff coverage.
Those stats were given true meaning on Saturday. There was nothing hidden about them.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo