It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Charles Dickens' renowned quote, juxtaposing the conflicting emotions in his iconic work A Tale of Two Cities, maintains its relevance long beyond 1859 — this antithesis accurately portrays the feelings experienced by the Bowling Green faithful during the program's 180-degree turnaround in the past few seasons.
The Falcons program reached its summit during the 2013-2015 years, appearing in all three MAC Championship Games during the span and hoisting the conference championship trophy in 2013 and 2015. Last season, Bowling Green notoriously dropped games 77-3 and 77-10 to Memphis and Ohio State, starting 1-7 and missing out on bowl action. After a brief recovery last November, the Falcons have nosedived below sea level to begin 2017.
The free fall commenced after falling to FCS opponent South Dakota at home in Week 2. Bowling Green lost 37-29 to the Coyotes before getting decimated 49-7 at Northwestern in Week 3. The good news for the Falcons is that they have nothing to lose at this point. The team can only trend upward from this point and there are plenty of experiments Mike Jinks can test — such as depth chart rearrangement, play-call adjusting, and attempting new defensive schemes — in order to figure out how to launch the Falcons to the top of the MAC East once again.
In Week 4, the Falcons stay on the road to battle the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Middle Tennessee, a Conference USA member, is 1-2, but don't be deceived. The Blue Raiders have challenged themselves with a difficult non-conference schedule, opening 2017 with three-consecutive dates with the Power Five.
Middle Tennessee lost 28-6 to the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-0) and their relentless defense. The Blue Raiders rebounded nicely with a solid win in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse (2-1), but could not get the offense into rhythm in a 34-3 blowout at the hands of P.J. Fleck and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0).
Revisiting the 2016 Matchup
Bowling Green and Middle Tennessee clashed a season ago in September at Doyt Perry Stadium in Ohio. The Falcons ignited the offense early, leading 21-14 at home until the waning minutes of the second half. Within the final two minutes of the second frame, Middle Tennessee rattled off two touchdowns to capture a 28-21 halftime lead, with the help of a Bowling Green fumble and Brent Stockstill's performance at quarterback.
The Falcons struggled in the second half, allowing the Blue Raiders to score two touchdowns and leave Bowling Green with a 41-21 victory. Bowling Green committed four turnovers in the game and only passed for 129 yards. Middle Tennessee finished the season 8-5 with a loss in the Hawaii Bowl, while Bowling Green was not invited to postseason play after sporting a 4-8 record.
Players to Watch
Jarret Doege, QB, Bowling Green
Mike Jinks announced there is open quarterback competition occurring at practice right now. Sophomore James Morgan struggled to record a victory in his first three starts and Jinks tested the freshman Doege during the closing minutes of the Northwestern loss. Doege finished 12-of-18 with 90 passing yards in his first minutes of collegiate action.
Comparatively, Morgan finished 15-of-26, throwing for 166 yards without a touchdown or interception last Saturday. Morgan has thrown two touchdowns and two interceptions this season, struggling against powerful Big Ten defenses but showed signs of promise with 311 yards in the loss to South Dakota.
Jinks has yet to announce the starter and the result will be a game-time decision. Even if Morgan earns the start, Doege may see plenty of time on the field if Bowling Green opens up trailing by several touchdowns. However, Jinks told WTOL-11 anchor Jordan Strack that Doege earned the majority of first team reps at quarterback during Thursday's practice.
Brent Stockstill, QB, Middle Tennessee
Remember growing up playing youth football and the quarterback was always the coaches' son?
That happens in college football too. Head coach Rick Stockstill has coached Middle Tennessee for over a decade and now has the pleasure of working with his own son as quarterback on the sidelines. Brent Stockstill is a third-year starter, achieving the 30 passing touchdown mark in each of his last two campaigns. However, Stockstill recently suffered a cracked sternum and separated collarbone, sitting out the entire game versus Minnesota. According to The Daily News Journal, Rick Stockstill declares both his son and star wide receiver Richie James as questionable for Saturday's game.
The home team, Middle Tennessee, opens as 7-point favorites for Saturday. The game begins at 7 p.m. EST and is streamable on WatchESPN's ESPN3 channel. ESPN's FPI gives the Blue Raiders an 81.2% chance of winning this weekend.
Bowling Green is attempting to avoid its first 0-4 start of the millennium. Meanwhile, the Blue Raiders have not opened a season 1-3 since 2011. One of these trends will change course in Week 4.
Middle Tennessee leads the all-time series 1-0 after last season's 41-21 victory at Bowling Green.
Key to the Game/Prediction
Bowling Green's defense ranks 128th in the nation in total yards allowed. The FBS teams the Falcons faced — Michigan State and Northwestern — are more defensive-oriented teams, yet their offenses have cruised past the Falcons.
Middle Tennessee's middle-of-the-road defense has remained rather consistent against the team's Power Five opponents, yielding 28, 23, and 34 points in three games this season.
Offensively, both teams sit in the FBS's gutter. Bowling Green averages 14.7 points per game, while Middle Tennessee scores just 13.0. The Blue Raiders opened poorly against Vanderbilt's top-ranked defense and struggled in Stockstill's absence last week. Young quarterbacks John Urzua and Kyle Banks combined for 184 passing yards and two interceptions in the blowout loss at Minnesota.
In terms of the ground game, Bowling Green has produced much more than Middle Tennessee. Josh Cleveland leads the Falcons' rushing game with 157 yards on the year, rivaling the Blue Raiders' team total of 189.
Middle Tennessee's leading rushers is sophomore running back Ty Lee, who has produced 60 yards on 27 carries. The key to Saturday is to establish the rushing attack, especially if Stockstill is sidelined.
Saturday's matchup will feature young quarterbacks if Stockstill sits, especially if Doege earns the start over Morgan. In that case, the teams may keep the ball on the ground or utilize short screen passes to remain interception free and maintain offensive momentum. The running game favors Bowling Green up to this point in the season, but Middle Tennessee's backs will face favorable competition in the Falcons' atrocious defense.
The Blue Raiders knocked off a Power Five opponent in Week 2 and are still one of Conference USA's most complete teams. Their defense is much stronger than Bowling Green's and that will be the deciding factor in Murfreesboro in Week 4.