Bowling Green's home opener did not go as planned.
The Falcons fell in embarrassing fashion to the South Dakota Coyotes of the FCS in Week 2. South Dakota, a program that has not even posted a winning season since 2011, ruined Bowling Green's hopeful Saturday. The Coyotes stormed into Ohio and claimed a 35-27 victory, jumping out to a 21-3 advantage and leading by 16 with as little as three minutes to go.
Bowling Green now sits at a lowly 0-2, showing no signs of improvement after winning three out of four contests to close 2016. The Falcons face their second Big Ten foe of the season in Week 3, aiming to compete with the Northwestern Wildcats.
Northwestern was viewed as a Big Ten West dark-horse contender, finishing a solid second in the division in the preseason media poll. But the Wildcats, winners of the 2016 NewEra Pinstripe Bowl, have failed to live up to expectations. Pat Fitzgerald's team escaped Ryan Field with a victory over Nevada after trailing in the early fourth quarter. The Wildcats followed up that performance with a 41-17 beatdown at the hands of Duke and now sit with a sense of uncertainty at 1-1.
After falling 35-10 to Michigan State on kickoff weekend, Bowling Green will play the role as road warriors in Big Ten country for the second time this season. Northwestern is undefeated in Evanston and returns to its home at Ryan Field in disarray after Duke's offense dominated the Wildcats.
Players to Watch
James Morgan, QB, Bowling Green
James Morgan completed 20-of-49 passes against South Dakota, barely hovering beyond the 40% completion mark. The sophomore earned 311 yards through the air, throwing his first two touchdown passes of the season. Morgan struggled against Michigan State's notoriously brutal defense, where he completed just 10-of-31 passes for 145 yards. His touchdown-to-interception ratio remains at a 1:1, throwing one interception in each of the Falcons' two losses.
Last year, Bowling Green's offense shined brightest when Morgan was comfortable in the pocket and connected with targets deep down the field. Morgan has struggled with incompletions thus far and must improve by testing screen passes more often to keep the offense in a groove whilst venturing into opposing territory. Increasing his completion percentage of 37.5% should be one of Jinks' main focuses heading into Saturday.
Duke had a field day passing against the Northwestern defense, throwing for 305 yards on 29 completions. Morgan must put his first two outings behind him and perform like he did in the Toledo game last year (25-of-38, 335 yards, five touchdowns, one interception) in order to mimic Duke and set Bowling Green in optimal position for the upset.
Datrin Guyton, WR, Bowling Green
The junior receiver burst onto the scene in Bowling Green with five receptions and 158 yards last week. Fellow wideout Scott Miller has been the team's most impactful wideout over the last year, but Guyton showed last week that Morgan is gifted with an array of talent at the receiver position. Guyton, a sprinter on his high school's track team, provides the Falcons with speed and serves as a dangerous deep threat.
He averages 28.3 yards per catch on his seven receptions this season and can work magic with his quickness once the ball lands in his possession. Guyton was a star receiver at his high school in Texas, played at Oregon State in 2015, but is finally given a fantastic opportunity to prove his abilities at the FBS level. Guyton succeeded in Bowling Green's loss to South Dakota and will likely become more involved in Mike Jinks' passing game as a result.
Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern
Anyone who watched the 2016 Pinstripe Bowl understands the enormous amount of potential Jackson holds. Jackson, now a senior, nearly set the rushing record for the event, finishing the day with 224 yards and three touchdowns. Very few running backs in the nation closed the 2016 season at the level Jackson did. In his final four games, the Northwestern tailback totaled 614 yards on the ground, 73 receiving yards, and nine rushing touchdowns.
The Wildcats won three out of four games in that span — Northwestern performs best when Jackson is lighting up opposing defenses. When he rushes for over 100 yards, Northwestern is 17-3. In other cases, the Wildcats are 6-13. So giving Jackson his reps and establishing the run game are vital points of impact for Pat Fitzgerald's offense.
Last week against Duke, Northwestern achieved just 22 rushing yards on 21 attempts. These alarming numbers translate directly to the final score of 41-17.
Jackson is a star halfback, one of the best the Big Ten has to offer. After an unusually rough day for the senior, the Wildcats must establish rhythm in the running game early in order to maximize the offense's potential. After a career-low day in rushing yards, expect Jackson to bounce back against a Bowling Green defense that allowed 214 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns to South Dakota.
Godwin Igwebuike, FS, Northwestern
Igwebuike probably could have played football last Sunday. But instead, the All-Big Ten free safety decided to return to Evanston for his senior season.
Igwebuike exhibits a special combination of speed and power on defense, downing ball carriers in the backfield in an instant. He recognizes plays before they develop and sprints to the ball immediately in an effort to make the tackle. But Igwebuike's hitting ability resembles that of a linebacker rather than that a typical free safety. He contributed 108 total tackles for the Wildcats a year ago, including six tackles for loss.
In the coverage game, Igwebuike thrives just as well. He once intercepted three passes in one game during his freshman season to seal a victory over No. 17 Wisconsin. The Wildcats' defensive standout assisted in creating turnovers last season as well, forcing one fumble and intercepting two passes. He also broke up an additional seven throws.
Phil Steele ranks Igwebuike as the third best free safety for the 2018 NFL Draft, behind Alabama's Minkah Fitzpatrick and Penn State's Marcus Allen. For film breakdowns on Igwebuike and more on his scouting report, fellow SB Nation blog Inside NU covers the quick, powerful hitter in significant detail.
Keys to the Game
When Bowling Green has the ball: share the wealth
Ever since the days of Matt Johnson, Bowling Green has been renowned as a passing team. The Falcons have attempted 80 passes this year, compared to executing just 58 rushing plays.
In order to upset Northwestern, Bowling Green must establish an accurate passing attack and rely on James Morgan's arm. After two inaccurate outings in 2017, Morgan should mix up the passing game and attempt more screens to provide a boost to Jinks' offense. Excelling in the flats opens up the field on offense, allowing downfield throws to become more feasible.
Morgan's junior receiver Scott Miller is capable of running a plethora of routes. He is the primary target and can be useful in both quick sideline patterns and vertical streaks down the field. Bowling Green's other receivers must also run solid patterns and earn that extra step on Wildcat cornerbacks to get open. Datrin Guyton and Teo Redding join Miller to form a solid receiving corps for the Falcons.
Bowling Green's air raid system (Jinks previously coached at Texas Tech) has proven to be effective at times, so completing passes in a variety of areas to several different receivers is the key to besting Northwestern's pass defense — a unit that only yielded 11 touchdowns in 2016 (ninth in FBS).
When Northwestern has the ball: limit Justin Jackson immediately
It's possible. This is not an easy task, but the Duke Blue Devils effectively accomplished it. By stifling the run game early, Duke forced Northwestern to turn to the passing game, a common offensive strategy by teams that quickly have to work themselves out of the gutter. As a result, Jackson only received a career-low seven rushing attempts in the loss.
In Week 1, Jackson earned 30 carries for 109 yards and was responsible for the emergence of Northwestern's offense in the second half after trailing Nevada by 10. Jackson is the best running back Bowling Green's defense will have faced this season. After debacles against Michigan State and South Dakota, the front-seven and the safeties must come together and halt Jackson's progress at all costs.
If they don't, it just might be the Pinstripe Bowl all over again for the senior running back. Jackson rebounding from an outlier performance and rushing for at least 180 yards is definitely not off limits.
This game sounds like a typical noon game to air on ESPN2, but don't be fooled. The Wildcats and Falcons will meet at 7:30 p.m. EST in Ryan Field, playing under the lights. This matchup in Evanston will be viewable on Big Ten Network. Northwestern is currently listed as 22-point favorites, but the Wildcats have yet to cover a spread this season.
Bowling Green holds a 2-0 advantage in the all-time series. The Falcons, under head coach Urban Meyer, slid past the Wildcats, 43-42, in 2001 and followed it up with a 28-24 victory under head coach Gregg Brandon in 2003.
Northwestern is 1-2 against the MAC in the past three seasons, losing to 2016 Western Michigan and 2014 Northern Illinois (both MAC champions) and defeating 2015 Ball State 24-19.
Bowling Green lost to Michigan State in the opener and enters Saturday with a two-game losing streak against the Big Ten. But in 2015, the Falcons finished 2-0 against the conference by defeating both Maryland and Purdue on the road.
Northwestern does not look like the team it was projected to be at Big Ten Media Day. But the Wildcats are still a decent program, destined for bowl season for the eighth time in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson is set to have a bounce-back week from his 11-of-29, two interception performance against Duke. Justin Jackson, likewise, will definitely rush for over 18 yards. Northwestern's entire offense struggled in Week 2, but the unit can show revival against a struggling Bowling Green on Saturday.
After losing to an FCS team, Bowling Green desperately needs a victory to escape the nightmare start to 2017. The victory will come, but the Falcons will have to wait until conference season with road trips to Northwestern and Middle Tennessee looming.