The Hinges – No. 3: The kicking game

Over the next several weeks here on the HailState Beat, we’ll be running a new football-related series each week, a series of series, if you will. We finish this week with The Hinges: counting down the top five people, places or things that Mississippi State’s season will hinge on.

No. 3 in The Hinges: The kicking game

Special teams are like toilets. No one talks about them or wants to mess with them on their own, taking for granted that everything will go smoothly. But if something goes wrong, it can really stink the place up.

A missed field goal, a blocked extra point or a fumbled punt return can swing a game, particularly in tight SEC matchups when the difference in the outcome may be just one mistake.

For example, Mississippi State was 12-for-19 in field goal attempts last year. Those 21 points left on the board, when strategically and illogically given to MSU in random games, could’ve got the Bulldogs wins over Auburn (41-34 loss) and South Carolina (14-12 loss) with 10 points to spare.

Brian Hazelwood kicked field goals for the 1998 SEC West champs.

After Scott Westerfield and Brian Hazelwood won so many games with their legs in the ‘90s, the 2000s were fraught with unreliable field goal kicking. It got better when Dan Mullen took over in 2009, though it still hasn’t been ideal.

Mullen himself said last week that MSU was “close” and “a few plays away” from beating a lot of teams in the SEC West. If his team is even better this year, they should, in theory, be even closer. Close enough, say, that three points from a field goal could secure one more victory here or there.

The problem is the Bulldogs didn’t have a consistent field goal kicker in the spring and will likely be relying on one of the several freshmen kickers who have since arrived on campus. If one of them can become a reliable option, it could go a long way for the Dawgs in the wins and losses columns.

The next important and oft-underrated part of special teams: field position.

As for kickoffs, MSU will once again be relying on a freshman. State had the 10th-worst average kickoff distance in the SEC, as well the 10th–ranked average in net kickoff yardage. The Bulldogs were also one of only four teams to have single-digit touchbacks, with a total of seven on the year. The SEC’s leader, Arkansas, had 40.

In addition to talented freshmen, MSU will also be happy to see kickoffs moved up five yards under the new NCAA rule, so right off the bat the Bulldogs will be better in that area.

Between kickoffs and field goals, MSU could see any combination of freshmen Devon Bell, Michael Mordecai and Evan Sobiesk step forward and be the consistent, big-footed kicker Dan Mullen needs.

The other “special” problem for MSU came on the opposite end of kickoffs – the returns. State hasn’t been able to find a dynamic returner since Leon Berry went down with an injury early in 2010, and it has shown.

The Bulldogs were dead last in the conference last year in kickoff returns, averaging only 18.5 yards per return and never taking one to the opposite end zone for six points, but more help may be on the way in the form of freshman track star Brandon Holloway, who we wrote about last week.

Special teams are typically overlooked and taken for granted, but they can be just as important as offense and defense, and sometimes even more. Even the best quarterback in the country will struggle if he always starts with his back against his own end zone, and even the worst offenses around have a chance if they constantly start on the opponent’s half of the field.

And in hard-fought, down-to-the-wire SEC battles, a simple 30-yard kick through the uprights can be the difference between agonizing defeat and triumphant victory. Just ask LSU and Alabama.

And the returns? Nothing swings the momentum of a game quite like a 99-yard streak on a kickoff return or a zig-zagging race to pay-dirt after catching a deep punt.

Dan Mullen will have his work cut out for him this fall. If he wants to get over the proverbial hump in the SEC West, special teams may be where he makes the difference.

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