Sunday, February 25, 2024

Forced out of the shadows

Junior Damon Dowdell might have to replace senior Jeff Smoker as MSU's starting quarterback. Smoker was injured in the second quarter of Saturday's 20-19 loss to Louisiana Tech. Dowdell was the starter last season when Smoker was indefinitely suspended, winning only one game as the head signal caller. —

With Jeff Smoker in at quarterback, MSU amassed 186 yards of total offense in the first quarter and most of the second. Minus Smoker, the Spartans gained a total of six.

What's that spell? Trouble - with a capital T.

After Smoker left the game late in the second quarter with a toe injury, junior Damon Dowdell stepped in to take snaps against Louisiana Tech. But, in doing so, MSU's offense took two steps backward.

MSU escaped into the fourth quarter with a lead after scoring only one touchdown. The Spartans' first six points weren't a direct product of Smoker's arm, but when the senior signal caller was in the game, Louisiana Tech's defense was stretched across Spartan Stadium. The extra space allowed sophomore running back Jaren Hayes to run for 95 yards in the first half and score the team's first rushing touchdown of the season.

Dowdell and the Spartans sputtered through the third quarter, gaining only two first downs - one of those on a Bulldogs holding penalty.

Third-string quarterback Drew Stanton succeeded in driving the Spartans 48 yards in the final minutes against Rutgers in week two of MSU's season. But the only action he saw Saturday was on special teams.

Stanton said it was Smith's decision not to give him the chance to take over the game, though he wanted to get in. Yet, he thought Dowdell did what he could.

"You always want to get out there and play," Stanton said. "And I feel like I was ready. But (Smith) is the one that makes the ultimate decision.

"I don't know what's going through his head. I don't think many people know what's going on. (Smith) is the person that makes that call. He felt comfortable with Damon and Damon really did everything that was asked of him out there."

It was the redshirt freshman from Farmington Hills who bobbled the onside kick by the Bulldogs with a little over a minute remaining in the game - giving them the chance they needed to beat the Spartans - which, of course, they capitalized on.

Smoker left the game with an injury to his right big toe. After the loss, he said he was in disbelief.

"I don't know how it happened," Smoker said. "It's hard when you're on the sidelines. I'm not used to being injured a lot."

MSU has never been quarterback-rich, but the drop-off on Saturday was significant compared to what Spartans fans have seen in the past. In most fans' recent memories, the string of Todd Schultz, Bill Burke and Ryan Van Dyke were all successful themselves and had reliable backups - one another.

But when Smoker was suspended last season and Dowdell took over, MSU only beat Indiana, who finished last in the Big Ten.

The Bulldogs defense showed no respect to the Dowdell-led offense, constantly filling the box as they waited for the run and blitzing. The first nine plays by the Smoker-less Spartans included a negative three-yard rush by Hayes, a nine-yard sack and a negative two-yard pass completion to sophomore wide receiver Agim Shabaj.

Dowdell said it was tough to adjust when he first stepped onto the field late in the second quarter.

"When I first got out there to play," Dowdell said, "I was kind of tentative and nervous."

Yet Dowdell's teammates claimed he entered the game ready to finish off the Bulldogs, though he and Stanton split only 20-25 percent of the snaps with the first team in practice.

"He was very poised," said William Whitticker, a junior backup guard. "He went out there ready to go. It was just that the offense couldn't execute everything we should have."

Dowdell and Smoker acknowledged that MSU's offense became limited once the starting quarterback was on the sidelines.

"We just slowed things up mostly," Dowdell said. "We played conservative when I got in there. It was still good play-calling, we just didn't execute how we were supposed to."

"We weren't able to get things going," Smoker added. "We weren't able to run the ball like we should have there at the end. We let them back in, and you can't do that."

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