East Lansing — There were plenty of memorable plays during Michigan State’s victory over Oregon last weekend.
■ Madre London rambling for 62 yards on the opening play.
■ An impressive interception by Montae Nicholson that was more of a theft.
■ The clinching sack of Vernon Adams Jr. in the final series.
All those plays, however, didn’t draw the reaction Malik McDowell did early in the second quarter when Michigan State thwarted a fourth-and-goal from its 1-yard line.
As Adams turned and handed the ball to Royce Freeman, the running back’s path was obstructed by center Matt Hegarty. That’s because the instant the ball was snapped, McDowell blasted Hegarty 3 yards into the backfield.
It clogged the hole, and Freeman was stopped short. It proved to be a huge play in a 31-28 victory, and had everyone raving.
“I thought he lifted that guy right out of his shoes,” Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said.
It’s been a play that has been seen over and over.
“They put that up for everyone to see,” fifth-year senior linebacker Darien Harris said. “That was an All-American caliber play and he is that caliber of player.”
It’s exactly what Michigan State expected when it won a hotly contested recruiting battle for the 6-foot-6, 275-pound McDowell coming out of Southfield High in 2014. It was a bizarre signing, one that didn’t come until well after Signing Day when McDowell’s mother, Joya Crowe, relented and signed the letter of intent for her son to attend Michigan State.
McDowell played in all 13 games as a freshman and got his first start in the Cotton Bowl. That game, however, didn’t go quite as well as the Oregon matchup did.
Late in the second quarter, as Baylor’s offense was getting rolling, McDowell had a four-play stretch that included a roughing the passer penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The first penalty led to a touchdown that gave Baylor a 21-14 lead, and the second came on the extra point.
McDowell was pulled and saw limited action the rest of the way, the disappointment softened by the fact the Spartans rallied for a 42-41 victory.
But McDowell was a different player then — a different person. This week he admitted he was too stubborn as a freshman and needed to make a change if he was going to become the player everyone — himself included — expected him to be.
“I was like, if their way didn’t work the first time then I was gonna go back to my old way,” McDowell said. “The coaches wanted me to use my hands and I wasn’t using my hands. I just had to go with what coach (Ron) Burton was saying. It took a minute to get it but now that I have it down I’m out there having fun.”
It wasn’t all about technique, however. Adjustments needed to be made off the field, too.
Harris says he’s seen a remarkable transition in McDowell since last season.
“He’s fitting in with guys, he’s talking a lot more and having a lot more fun out there,” Harris said.
And that has translated into McDowell becoming a player who has been close to dominant the first two weeks.
“I think he’s growing up,” Dantonio said. “I think he’s still scratching the surface because he has tremendous ability. But you’ve seen him play two games and play very well in two games. But he’s growing up as a football player and that’s transferring to him as a person, too.”
As McDowell said, “I gave in, pretty much, and now you’re seeing the results.”
He has four tackles and one sack, not eye-popping numbers but for a defensive tackle it’s about more than just the numbers. McDowell is causing havoc for opposing offenses.
It’s easier for him to do those things now because he’s in a far better place.
“My attitude is better,” he said. “I feel more comfortable out there and I’m doing what the coaches ask me to do and it’s made me a better player.”
And it’s led to him becoming the difference-maker everyone expected.
“He’s going out there and playing like he’s the best guy on the field,” Harris said, “because he’s capable of being the best player on the field. … You’re really seeing that NFL talent on the field.”
Air Force at Michigan State
Kickoff: Noon Saturday, Spartan Stadium, East Lansing
Records: Air Force 2-0, No. 4 Michigan State 2-0
Line: Michigan State by 26.5
Series: First meeting