EAST LANSING, Mich. — Malik McDowell will be in a strange place Saturday afternoon.
Sure, the Michigan State junior defensive lineman will be at Spartan Stadium, but because of a targeting call against him last week at Indiana, McDowell will have to watch the first half against Brigham Young from the locker room. It will bring to an end his streak of 19 straight starts.
It will also add to a growing list of concerns for the Spartans (2-2, 0-2 Big Ten and losers of back-to-back games).
Raequan Williams, the only Michigan State defender with multiple sacks, will miss Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury. The depleted defensive front is borrowing a player from the offensive line against the Cougars. Add it all up and the effectiveness of the front line of the Spartans defense is a going to be more of a question mark than already has been this season.
Or, you can take the opposite point of view.
“I would describe it as an opportunity for a lot of guys that are gonna get a chance to play,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said. “That’s a need. We’re young up front, and we’re gonna take advantage of it. So we’re gonna look it as a positive, No. 1. They’re wild and wooly and ready to go. So they’re gonna create their own opportunities. But the situation the way it is allows it, which is a good thing — it’s called growing.”
The Spartans are going so far as to bring Brandon Clemons over from the offensive line to fill in the gaps — literally and figuratively — on the defensive line. Clemons came to East Lansing in 2011 as a defensive lineman and made a couple of tackles against Stanford in the 2014 Rose Bowl. The following season, however, he was switched predominantly to the offensive side of scrimmage. Until now.
The Spartans are not looking for Clemons to be the main replacement, though. They need that to come from those already playing under Burton’s purview.
Freshmen Josh King, Mike Panasiuk and Auston Robertson will continue to get more playing time, but for junior Demetrius Cooper and seniors Kevin Williams and Evan Jones — the other starters along with McDowell — it will be a chance to show they can be more than complementary players.
“We’ve really just got to just focus in, really just get fully engaged,” Cooper said. “I feel like these first four weeks, we were really just slouching around. We were really just living off our name. It’s really time to really just focus up and really get serious about playing the game of football, because when all’s said and done, we should’ve never lost the Indiana game.
“Credit to Indiana. They came out and they played hard as a team. That’s just a focal point for us is just to know we can’t take no team kindly, no team lightly, because on any given Saturday, we can lose.”
Indiana had just 78 yards rushing at the end of the third quarter last week. Michigan State led 14-7 at that point. The Hoosiers doubled that rushing total in the fourth quarter and overtime as they won 24-21 for their first victory over the Spartans since 2006.
Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow wasn’t sacked once on the 26 times he dropped back to pass. The closest he came was on the hit McDowell delivered on him in the fourth quarter that resulted in the targeting penalty and subsequent suspension.
Michigan State has just 5 sacks this season.
BYU (2-3) enters the game averaging 43.5 points and 553.5 yards of total offense the last two games. Senior RB Jamaal Williams is second in the nation with 703 yards rushing and had a school-record 286 yards last week against Toledo. Williams equaled a school record with 5 touchdowns in that game, as well.
“He’s a stiff-arm runner,” Burton said. “He gets yards after contact and that’s our challenge, to be able to stop him. He is a good back and we’re looking forward to the challenge against Mr. Williams.”
It will be tougher for the first 30 minutes without McDowell, who commands constant attention from opposing blocking schemes. He has 6 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in his career. The other defensive linemen, including Clemons, have 7.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss combined.
This will be their opportunity.
“I don’t think you all of a sudden restructure your whole defense and say, so and so’s not in there, and let’s change the whole defense,” head coach Mark Dantonio said. “I don’t think you can do those type of things. You can’t make wholesale changes. But certainly we’ll miss Malik, but, you know, there is nothing that I can do about that.”
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoG0