Mercer linebacker Isaac Dowling led a defense that held North Alabama in check for much of the 2023 FCS Kickoff Classic, recording a team-high 10 tackles to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the Bears’ 17-7 win on Saturday at Cramton Bowl.
Having an outstanding game on national television to open the season would be quite an accomplishment for most players, but Dowling certainly isn’t like most players.
“For me personally, I definitely could’ve been better,” he said in rating his performance. “I felt like I made a lot of mistakes, missed a couple of tackles as well. I’d definitely say this is one of my lower games.”
The 5-foot-9, 225-pound junior from Snellville, Ga., anchored a Mercer defense that put the brakes on North Alabama, but that type of performance is one head coach Drew Cronic was expecting despite the array of unknowns his team was facing in Brent Dearmon’s coaching debut at North Alabama.
“Coach (Joel) Taylor, our defensive coordinator, (did a) phenomenal job,” Cronic said. “You’ve got a new coach, a new situation, so you’re really having to get ready for everything. I thought we adjusted. I think Isaac had a few blitzes there where we were able to make some plays. You saw him on some very well timed blitzes. And I think we’re pretty dang good on defense.”
The game had that early-season feel for both offenses as neither could sustain any success in the blazing August temperatures. But a lightning strike seven miles away halted play for 76 minutes in the third quarter and the North Alabama offense was never a threat once play resumed, managing just 15 yards on its final three possessions over the final 17 minutes of the game.
“We just settled in,” Dowling said. “Coming from the (weather) break, we had a lot of time to think about it. As time went on, we’re confident in what we can do and picking up what they were doing as well. Just playing faster.”
And the faster Mercer’s defense got, the more difficult it became for North Alabama to find any traction on offense. A lot of that can be attributed to Dowling, who earned the respect of his teammates by being selected as a team captain as a freshman in 2021 and again as a sophomore in 2022.
“Isaac’s a good football player,” Cronic said. “And he has been since the day he showed up on our campus. He’s started since the day he showed up. We signed him in our first signing class. That kid is a coach’s dream. He does everything right. Everything. His name has never come across my desk for one negative thing. I mean, he’s got a 3.7 GPA in public health, he has a sister who graduated from Mercer, his parents are awesome. When you tell him to do something, it’s going to get done. And he is a kid that prepares for everything.
“So he’s a good player, but he’s an even better player because of the time he spends, how important it is to him, his attitude, his approach. He was being honest with you up here. He expects to play better. Even though he had whatever it was, 12 tackles, 13 tackles and made some huge plays, I promise you he’s going to be critical of himself in that film and he’s going to get better. That’s just who he is. There’s no one more deserving to win that MVP award for the game than he is.”
Dowling might not agree with his coach.
“I’m hard on myself,” he admitted. “I want to do everything right. I felt like I made a lot of mistakes, but those can be fixed.”
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