EAST LANSING, Mich. – Head coach Mark Dantonio had a piece of advice for Andrew Dowell prior to Michigan State’s season opener against Furman.
“He said the toughest thing for a younger player, and that being my first start, is to adjust to things on the fly,” Dowell said. “We get our game plan, we know what we think they’re going to do, and then how can we react when they don’t show you exactly what it is. That’s been a growing process for me.”
Dowell, a sophomore, was making the first start of his career at outside linebacker because of a left hand injury to regular starter Jon Reschke. Dowell had performed well as a freshman on special teams but now he was being entrusted with a bigger role.
Dowell responded, making 8 tackles and coming up with his first career interception in the 28-13 win. If nothing else, he proved he deserved a role on the Spartans defense, even when Reschke returned to play the next week against Notre Dame.
After two games, Reschke is again hurt and unable to play, this time with an ankle injury that is expected to keep him off the field for several games. Once again, the Spartans are turning to Dowell to start, beginning with this Saturday’s game at Indiana. It’s a role Dowell is ready to embrace.
“Same mindset as I took before the opener. I have to fill in his shoes well. I have to watch more film and my attention to detail has to go up being in the starting lineup,” said Dowell, who has 14 tackles and 1 sack to go with the interception this season. “I’m definitely better than I was (against Furman). I’ve just gotten better understanding the game more. I’m watching more film and things like that.”
Dowell was pretty good against Furman. His interception was a diving, one-handed catch of a pass that came one play after the Michigan State offense had turned the ball over. The Spartans were leading 21-13 with 11:44 left to play in the fourth quarter when Dowell picked off the pass at the Spartans 40-yard line. He read the quarterback’s eyes, diagnosed the play as a slant pattern entering his zone and went to his right to grab the ball out of the air.
The interception led to a touchdown drive for Michigan State that clinched a 28-13 win.
Dowell’s position in Michigan State’s scheme is called the STAR linebacker. It brings with it a variety of responsibilities from playing the run, dropping back into coverage and occasionally blitzing the quarterback. At 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, Dowell has a combination of size, strength and athleticism to handle all of those responsibilities.
“He started for us before, and he’s played a lot of reps for us,” said Dantonio, whose team is 2-1 and 0-1 in Big Ten play following last Saturday’s 30-6 loss to Wisconsin. “He’ll be a significant factor in the game. He’s a guy that can go play after play after play 100 miles an hour. One of those type of guys, a tremendous conditioned athlete.”
Dowell and the rest of the Spartans defense will need to be well-conditioned. The Hoosiers offense is predicated on playing at an up-tempo pace: get to the line of scrimmage, force the defense to get set up before it’s ready and then run as many plays as possible. It’s wear-and-tear physically, as well as mentally.
Michigan State’s depth at linebacker took a hit not only with the injury to Reschke but the uncertain status of MLB Riley Bullough. Bullough did not play against Wisconsin because of an undisclosed injury. Dantonio said Bullough is considered day to day and is listed on the depth chart at second team this week behind redshirt junior Shane Jones.
“As a linebacker corps we’ve been blessed with depth this year,” said junior Chris Frey, who starts at the other outside linebacker spot. “We expect there to be no drop-off from the ones to the twos. It’s the standard that we’ve set around here. We know that we have depth at linebacker, so we expect that that next-guy mentality and we expect (Dowell) to step up and make plays just like he did Week 1.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo