Massachusetts Minutemen (0-4, 0-0 MAC) at Bowling Green Falcons (4-1, 2-0 MAC)
Saturday, October 5th, 2013 -- 3:30 p.m. ET -- TV: ESPN3
On Saturday afternoon, two programs that could not possibly be going in more drastically different directions meet on the gridiron. The Bowling Green Falcons have steadily improved in each of the last three seasons and have a good opportunity to turn a 2-10 record in 2010 into a season of double-digit wins. Falcon head coach Dave Clawson appears to have cemented his reputation as a program builder. On the other side are the Massachusetts Minutemen. UMass is staring another year of double-digit losses in the face and is regarded by many as the least competitive team in the Mid-American Conference. Even worse, Minutemen head coach Charley Molnar is embroiled in a controversy over a video that depicts his players participating in drills that some view as abusive. The scandal and his team's on-field performance threaten to end his time at UMass.
Unfortunately, this does not appear to be a week in which Massachusetts is likely to find a reprieve. The team has difficulty on offense, with just four touchdowns in 16 quarters and only two in 12 quarters against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponents. Now, they face the Mid-American Conference's best defense -- BGSU allows 45 fewer yards and 5.6 fewer points per game than anyone else in the league. It's also a defense that pitched a 24-0 shutout against UMass at Gillette Stadium in 2012. On offense, the Minutemen rank last (13th) in scoring and 12th (ahead of only Miami) with 258.5 yards per game.
If that wasn't enough, Bowling Green's offense has been as good as its defense. The Falcons rank second in the MAC in total offense, just one-tenth of a yard per game behind Northern Illinois. BGSU is second in the league in terms of both rushing and passing offense, and while Massachusetts has done an admirable job defending the pass this season, they average nearly 300 yards allowed per game on the ground. Against the Falcons, that has to be an extreme concern. In particular, Travis Greene ranks second in the MAC with 110.3 yards per game. He's averaging 5.6 yards per carry and has 551 total yards thus far. Andre Givens and Ronnie Moore, both of whom can spell Greene, are just as dangerous. Moore has 77 yards on just seven carries, while Givens and freshman Fred Coppet both get over five yards per touch.
So, what can we expect when Massachusetts has the ball?
It appears as if A.J. Doyle will be the starting quarterback, but his numbers are not appreciably better than former starter Mike Wegzyn. Doyle is 33-for-55 and has passed for 287 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, while Wegzyn completed just 22 of his 48 passes thus far for only 212 yards. Like Doyle, he also has one touchdown and two interceptions. Both quarterbacks played versus Bowling Green last year and fared very poorly. Doyle played late in the game and completed only four passes for just ten yards. Wegzyn started and was only 9-for-25 (36%) for 23 yards. Both each threw two interceptions. Could this be the week that the Falcons finally get their first interception of the season?
When Doyle (or Wegzyn) pass, the players that ought to most concern BGSU's secondary are Tajae Sharpe and Rob Blanchflower. Sharpe has 21 catches for 196 yards and one of the team's four touchdowns. His catches are ten more than any other player. Blanchflower missed the first three games but, against Vanderbilt, caught seven passes for 42 yards. At 6-4/260, Blanchflower can cause matchup problems, especially if he's paired against a linebacker.
The leading rusher for the Minutemen, Stacey Bedell, was injured against Vanderbilt. His playing status for Saturday's game is in question, and that's not good news for UMass. Bedell has 221 yards after 63 carries; no other UMass player has more than 60 rushing yards. If Bedell, the team's second-string back, can't start, then fourth-stringer Jamal Wilson could go. He has eight runs for 14 yards in three games.
In order to have any real hope of success, the Minutemen need to establish some level of running game. They simply do not have the talent at quarterback or receiver to consistently challenge BGSU's secondary. Last year, Bowling Green held Massachusetts to 118 yards, six first downs and no points. Those are difficult numbers to match, but the potential is there.
What can we expect when Bowling Green has the ball?
How about a different-looking defense from Massachusetts, for starters? UMass played in a 3-4 set for the first three games of the season, and that went very poorly. So, the team switched to a 4-3 set against Vanderbilt, and the move was met with at least a small level of success. The Commodores gained "only" 406 yards and just 166 on the ground; those are actually improvements on earlier numbers. They'll play that same 4-3 defense against BGSU.
This unit surprised the Falcons last year and held BGSU to just 282 yards overall and only 94 on the ground. They'll need to replicate that feat on Saturday, but it will be very difficult. We've already established that Greene is second in the MAC among rushers and has very capable backups, but the Falcons can pass, too. Matt Johnson is second in the MAC for yards per game and passing efficiency, and he leads the league in completion percentage. His number in the latter category is up to 66.7% now -- two of every three passes are completed. His targets are many. Shaun Joplin and Chris Gallon both have 23 receptions each, but Alex Bayer (16) and Ryan Burbrink (12) are both in double digits. Out of the backfield, Greene has nine receptions for 117 yards and Moore has eight for 84. Johnson's six touchdown passes have gone to five different players. Both Joplin (16.9) and Burbrink (17.2) are averaging more than 15 yards per catch.
Does UMass have any chance to win this game?
Well, they'll show up, so anything could happen. But realistically? No. Perhaps they'll cover the point spread, which is 23 points, but this isn't last week for Bowling Green. Last week, Akron came into Doyt Perry Stadium as a team with growing confidence and seemed as if they were primed for an upset. Their 14-3 lead after one quarter proved that point, even if they ultimately lost 31-14. That same feeling just isn't there for this game, even though Massachusetts has had two weeks to prepare. If anything, one ought to expect Bowling Green to come out of the locker room made and hungry; it's unlikely that Clawson or the team want a repeat of last week's first quarter. One would also expect a bigger and more raucous crowd in Bowling Green than last week, since the Falcons' homecoming festivities are this weekend.
For more good reading on this game, here are some handy links:
Wednesday Football Update, UMass Game (John Wagner/Toledo Blade) <-- includes injury notes