Spartan seniors reflect on emotional journey ahead of last game

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – They all have a unique story.

All 18 of Michigan State’s seniors preparing to play their final home game on Saturday have followed a similar yet different path.

Some have found the individual success on the field they always expected. Others have grown far more off the field. Together, they’ve all seen plenty of highs and lows as a team.

There was the Big Ten championship and berth in the College Football Playoff in 2015 and the 10-win season of 2017. But there was the three-win season of 2016 as well as this season’s struggles.

The experiences have shaped this class into what it is as it runs out of the Spartan Stadium tunnel one last time.

There will be one more game as Michigan State is bowl eligible. They can potentially improve on that bowl position with a win over Rutgers, which would give the Spartans seven victories and move the senior class’ overall record to 32-19.

Before that, though, they to write one more chapter to their story in the final home game of the season.

Band of brothers

Andrew Dowell was supposed to be doing this with his brother, David.

It’s easy to understand as Andrew prepares to play his final game at Spartan Stadium. He and his twin brother — never far from each other at any given moment — came to Michigan State together in 2015. But a redshirt for David means his final game will come next year.

“It will definitely be a weird moment,” Andrew Dowell said. “But that’s kind of how life happens. We’re gonna have to separate and not always be attached at the hip.”

That will be a significant change for the Dowell brothers. They’ve always done everything together, and when younger brother Michael joined the Spartans this year, it was a trio of Dowells that were never far apart. But the chance to have Michael on campus this year is something Andrew has relished.

“People mess with us because whenever we’re on the football field we’re always close to each other, talking to each other, coaching him up,” Andrew Dowell said. “It’s been some really great moments this year.”

Andrew Dowell has saved his best year for his last. He leads the Spartans with 85 tackles and said he’s felt a greater sense of urgency the last few weeks. Football could continue for Dowell, and even if it doesn’t, he’ll plan to be around town plenty the next few years as David plays his final season in 2019 and Michael gets going.

He hopes Mark Dantonio puts Michael, a defensive back, in for a snap on Saturday so all three Dowells are on the field together.

“Yeah, we gotta get that picture,” Andrew said.

Defensive stand

Back in February 2014, Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio talked about the signing of a running back that reminded him of former Spartan T.J. Duckett. At 6-foot-1 and 266 pounds, Gerald Owens certainly had the size. And no, he wasn’t coming to Michigan State as a fullback. Owens was a tailback who ran for 921 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior at West Deptford (New Jersey) High. And who could argue with the production Duckett had in his days as a big back for the Spartans?

But Dantonio also mentioned on that day that he’d seen Owens play defense, too, and called him and “outstanding football player.”

It didn’t take long for that shift to defense to take place. By his second season in the program, Owens began the move to the defensive line. It wasn’t an easy one and Owens only played sparingly as a sophomore in 2016. But by last season, he was firmly in the rotation at defensive tackle, and up to 310 pounds, he was a difference maker. Owens played more than 200 snaps and had 11 tackles.

Andrew Dowell (5) is one of 18 seniors on MSU.

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“Thinking back on everything, I had a crazy ride here,” Owens said. “Been through a lot of stuff, been through a lot of adversity. I’m just thankful that I got the opportunity to do everything. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I love what I did here. I love the people here and I’m just thankful for everything.”

Owens has continued his success in his final year, rotating with starters Mike Panasiuk and Raequan Williams along with Naquan Jones to form as good a defensive tackle group as any in the Big Ten. He’s played in all 11 games, but the 12th will be a tough one.

“I mean, real emotional,” Owens admitted. “I’ve been here five years. That’s a long time. I’m going to be positive. The whole day is gonna be a fun, eventful day. … I’m trying to keep moving forward like I have another game; try not think of it as my last one in Spartan Stadium.”

Enduring legacy

Walking onto the field at Michigan State with the Bullough name on the back of your jersey can bring plenty of expectations. That was true for linebacker Byron Bullough.

Of course, he was following in the footsteps of his father, Shane, his uncle, Chuck, and his grandfather, Henry. But more immediately, he joined a team that featured older brother, Riley, as an emerging star just a season after brother, Max, left as one of Michigan State’s best all-time linebackers.

Byron never reached the same level as his brothers, but it hardly limited his impact.

“Byron is what you would describe as a true Spartan,” Andrew Dowell said. “As far as his work ethic, as far as how he comes out to practice. Byron is a guy I’ve looked up to here. I said in fall camp I’m gonna try and match Byron’s energy every day. He’s a guy that comes out, is flying around, his attention to detail. He watches film like he’s starting and gonna play 80 snaps. You really look up to Byron and what he’s done.”

Headed into his final game, there were no regrets from Bullough.

“I’m excited about it,” Bullough said. “Last one and I’ll try and make the most of it.”

Captain fantastic

When Khari Willis walked into the building early this week, strength and conditioning coach Ken Mannie pointed out how he remembered the first day Willis arrived on campus.

“He remembered me walking in here from Lumen Christi and now I’m off to wherever,” Willis said. “It’s been a great experience, something I’ll cherish forever.”

Willis has certainly made the most of his four years. He became a starter in his first season in 2015 — at Michigan, of all games — and had some ups and downs on the field in 2016. By his junior year, however, he was a mainstay leading to this season where he was voted team captain and has a career-best 77 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups.

But Willis’ biggest impact might be off the field. The keynote speaker at the Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon, Willis is heavily involved in his communities — Lansing and his hometown of Jackson — volunteering time to work with several groups. He’s a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award, a semifinalist for National Football Foundation scholar athlete class and has been nominated for the Allstate/AFCA Good Works Team for community service.

He’ll do his best to keep his emotions from getting the best of him on Saturday.

“It will definitely start to creep in a little bit but I’m more focused on getting the job done first and then save all the emotional stuff for after the game,” Willis said. “I feel like the adrenaline will be rushing. I’ll probably be fighting emotion with my teammates and other fellow seniors.

“I’ll be excited to go out and play and get every snap, especially in Spartan Stadium, which has been so great for me.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau