Michigan State notebook: Kicker uncertainty, disputing calls and Maliq Carr emerging

EAST LANSING – For all the changes on Michigan State’s roster in the offseason, there was stability and reliability at kicker.

Matt Coghlin returned for a sixth year and fifth as the starter. He was the only Spartan to attempt a field goal or extra point since the start of the 2017 season, until he wasn’t.

Coghlin was in uniform for Michigan State’s 40-29 loss at Purdue last week but didn’t play. That led to true freshman walk-on Stephen Rusnak making his college debut. The Clarkston High School product made all three of his extra-point attempts, had one touchback in five kickoffs and missed his lone field goal try wide right from 43 yards out.

The No. 8 Spartans (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) are looking to rebound from their first loss of the season and host Maryland (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten) on Saturday (4 p.m., FOX) with uncertainty in the kicking game. Following the loss at Purdue, coach Mel Tucker said Coghlin was “sore” and “he’ll be ready when he’s ready.”

Now in his second season leading Michigan State, Tucker already made it clear he doesn’t like to talk about injuries and on Monday said he wants to give “as little information as possible” to avoid helping the opponent. That leaves the Spartans with uncertainty at kicker moving forward and a significant difference in the options.

Coghlin owns the program record in career field goals made at 74 and has connected on all 140 extra-point attempts. Rusnak was initially committed to play at South Dakota, an FCS program, before joining the Spartans in the offseason.

“We know what his range is and we try to get him well within that range,” Tucker said. “If he’s in there, we’re not going to ask him to try something he’s not capable of doing.”

Michigan State working to fix ‘unacceptable’ performance in loss at Purdue

Michigan State moves forward with a veteran and first-year player as the top options at a position that’s expected to produce critical points. That could alter decision making in attempting a kick or keeping the offense on the field but Tucker said the evaluation is simple.

“They all kick in practice and so we know what their ranges are, then we go in pregame and we get the ranges going both ways – with the wind, against the wind – and so before the game we know this is the line we need to get to where we feel like we’re going to be able to make it based upon on what we’ve seen them do in practice and then here,” Tucker said. “Outside of that, the probability of a make goes down significantly so we try to get them within that range and expect them to make it if we’re in that range, as long as we get a good snap and a good hold and good protection.”

In review: In addition to kicker, Michigan State has uncertainty at other starting spots, including receiver Jalen Nailor and left tackle Jarrett Horst, who didn’t travel with the team to Purdue. The Spartans also lost starting defensive tackle Simeon Barrow, who was disqualified in the third quarter for a targeting call against quarterback Aidan O’Connell.

Barrow made helmet-to-helmet contact on the play but it came with O’Connell moving forward and trying to escape a sack. Tucker said that play, along with others, were submitted to the Big Ten and he was awaiting feedback from coordinator of officials Bill Carollo.

“I don’t like to talk about calls, bad calls, things like that,” Tucker said. “I think that’s not part of our culture. We don’t like to make excuses about anything. I think that makes your program soft. I think it gives your coaches and your players a way out.”

For Michigan State, the ‘clock’s ticking’ to move on from first loss

Tucker previously said he disagreed with a targeting call against linebacker Cal Haladay in an Oct. 2 win against Western Kentucky. His comments on Monday came minutes after Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said the Big Ten admitted errors were made on calls in the Spartans’ 37-33 win against the Wolverines on Oct. 30. However, Tucker was never directly asked about Harbaugh or the calls in the Michigan game.

“I really don’t like to even talk about (questionable calls) that much but we do turn them in because we need clarification and if I disagree with something, I’ll tell them and we move on because it’s not going to change the outcome actually,” Tucker said. “It happens every week. It’s a performance business and there’s a lot of judgment calls out there as well.”

Another weapon: One of the top offseason transfer portal additions Michigan State made was landing Maliq Carr. And the former four-star prospect from Oak Park High School who spent last season at Purdue had his biggest performance of the year against his former team. Carr had a 28-yard reception and caught a 2-point conversion against the Boilermakers.

“The time that he was out there, he earned that, big time,” Tucker said. “We’ve had discussions with him. He’s worked really hard to get on the field.”

Carr had one catch for 15 yards in three games as a wide receiver for Purdue last season before transferring to Michigan State. He also hopes to play basketball for the Spartans but still has to finish the football season.

At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Carr has the size required to make the move from receiver to tight end. The position change means an adjustment in blocking and that can take time with Connor Heyward and Tyler Hunt earning most of the tight end snaps so far this season.

“He’s been doing a nice job in practice in the run game, blocking in line … and obviously you see what he can do in the pass game,” Tucker said of Carr. “We really like him. He’s a big body, he’s very athletic, he’s got really soft hands and he can run. He’s going to continue to progress but he’s done a really nice job working to this point. Only time will tell how much more he’s going to play but he did a really nice job when he was in there and I think he’s going to continue to get better.”

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