While Michigan State star Kenneth Walker III officially opted out of the Peach Bowl weeks ago, the Spartans hadn’t announced any other opt-outs. On Michigan State’s Sunday Zoom Peach Bowl press conference, head coach Mel Tucker announced a couple of new designations.
One key defensive contributor will not play in the Peach Bowl after entering the transfer portal and a handful of other regular season contributors are either questionable or doubtful to make an appearance.
“Michael Dowell is in the portal,” Tucker said. “He’s not planning to play in the game. And then we have a couple other guys that are doubtful. I would say (Quavaris) Crouch is doubtful, (Tyler) Hunt is doubtful, (Jarrett) Horst is questionable. And I think everyone else is trying to get to the game, trying to play.”
Dowell entered the transfer portal in late November, after participating in MSU’s Senior Day festivities against Penn State on Nov. 27, and his confirmed absence opens a hole in the Spartans’ secondary.
Dowell recorded 40 tackles (26 solo), one tackle for loss and defended three passes in 11 games for Michigan State this season, grading out as one of the Spartans’ highest-rated defensive backs, according to Pro Football Focus.
And with Michigan State’s FBS-worst pass defense, allowing 337.7 pass yards per game this season, any losses in the secondary don’t bode well when facing an offense predicated on throwing the ball.
Linebacker Quavaris Crouch is questionable with an injury, and he’s been a key contributor among Michigan State’s linebacker corps this season. Crouch, a transfer from Tennessee, racked up 75 tackles (37 solo), two tackles for loss, two sacks, defended three passes and forced and recovered a fumble this season.
Tyler Hunt, Michigan State’s backup tight end behind Connor Heyward, hasn’t been a huge factor this season, but he’s still added 14 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown. Like Crouch, he’s been sidelined with injury.
Horst, an All-Big Ten honorable mention after transferring from Arkansas State before the season, is only questionable, but his loss would only compound Michigan State’s rushing woes without Walker.
While Michigan State adequately filled his role along the offensive line, he still started the first eight games at left tackle for the Spartans this season.
With Walker and Dowell out, and the trio of Crouch, Hunt and Horst either doubtful or questionable, Michigan State isn’t “hamstrung” with the losses — although, it’ll be very, very hard to replace Walker — of key offensive and defensive players, but Tucker emphasized the importance of next man up.
“Yeah, you know, it’s hard to replace a guy like Ken,” Tucker said. “You really can’t do that. But we have other players obviously on our roster at that position that are going to be next man up, and they’re going to step up and get the job done and we have a plan for that. And I feel really good about our run game.”
Behind Walker, Michigan State ran Jordon Simmons (255 yards on 54 carries) and Elijah Collins (87 yards on 12 carries), and that was it in terms of backfield support of Walker. Payton Thorne also added 177 yards and four touchdowns of his own, but it was truly the Kenneth Walker Show for MSU in 2021.
Walker’s absence could be the deciding factor for Michigan State against Pitt, but the losses of two key defenders and two key solid offensive contributors shouldn’t be understated either.
While Pitt will be playing without Kenny Pickett, Taysir Mack and Damarri Mathis — three potential NFL draft picks to varying degrees — the Panthers should still be expected to emerge on top.