Species of falcons, such as the peregrine, typically fly higher and faster than ducks, which usually reach heights between 200 and 4,000 feet.
But on the football field, most experts will insist that the No. 24 Oregon Ducks will fly higher and faster than the Bowling Green Falcons. The two bird-themed programs will open the season with a meeting in Eugene on Saturday night.
Oregon, led by new head coach Mario Cristobal, is fresh off of an average 7-6 season that concluded in a Las Vegas Bowl defeat at the hands of Boise State. Since blowing a 31-point lead in the 2015 Alamo Bowl, the Ducks have only registered 11 wins, paired with 14 losses — a far cry from the national championship contenders of the early 2010s.
Bowling Green never had championship expectations, but the Falcons peaked at a similar time as the Oregon Ducks. The Falcons won two conference championships in 2013 and 2015, but Bowling Green has yet to find the same magic in the past two years under head coach Mike Jinks.
It’s a new season, and both Cristobal and Jinks are set on turning back the clock and bringing these teams back to the early 2010s, where they ruled their respective conferences.
Players to Watch
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Herbert is the Ducks’ greatest hope. With 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions in two seasons as a starter, his pinpoint accuracy makes him one of the top, if not the best, quarterback in the Pac-12. His greatest issue a season ago was his health, falling victim to a broken collarbone in late September. During a five-game stretch without Herbert, Oregon finished 1-4 and dropped to 5-5. Luckily for the Ducks, Herbert returned with two games left and bowl eligibility at risk. The 6’6” star quarterback rattled off two solid games to rout Arizona and Oregon State, earning a bowl bid and ushering in some promise to the 2018 season.
Tony Brooks-James, RB, Oregon
It seems like it’s been a few decades since Royce Freeman wasn’t manning the backfield at Autzen Stadium. With Freeman moving to Denver for a stint with the Broncos, Tony Brooks-James looks to join the long line of successful Ducks’ running backs (Jonathan Stewart, LeGarrette Blount, LaMichael James, Royce Freeman). It will be TBJ’s senior year, so he’s already had some exposure to college ball. His 2016 campaign was especially successful, where he tied for the team lead with nine rushing touchdowns and finished with 771 yards. Brooks-James nearly hit 500 on the ground last year, but you can expect that number to double without sharing the backfield with a prodigy like Freeman.
Troy Dye, OLB, Oregon
Dye led all of the Ducks in 2017 with 107 tackles, and the next closest teammate registered just 65. The outside linebacker is the most talented player on the defensive side of the ball in Eugene, specializing in both stopping the run and blitzing the quarterback. Four sacks, one interception, four pass deflections, and a fumble recovery for a touchdown are just several of the stats the junior posted last year. He’ll be all over the field on Saturday and will be the Ducks’ key to limiting Bowling Green’s top offensive player in Andrew Clair.
Jarret Doege, QB, Bowling Green
Since Matt Johnson graduated from the program, Bowling Green has been on an arduous search to find a long-term quarterback. James Knapke didn’t pan out, James Morgan transferred, and now Jarret Doege is the next man up. As a freshman, Doege showed some promise in 2017. His final four games: 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, with three games of 250+ yards. Don’t blame Doege’s aerial attack for Bowling Green’s 1-6 record as a starter because the defense allowed 37.3 points per game in these seven outings.
Andrew Clair, RB, Bowling Green
Another up-and-coming freshman on Jinks’ offense is the 5’10” running back from St. Louis, Missouri. Clair enjoyed a breakout freshman year, where he strung together four games of 100 yards in midseason, including performances against quality defenses such as Ohio and Northern Illinois. Clair only scored four rushing touchdowns in his freshman season, but expect that number to increase if Bowling Green becomes more offensively adept this fall. In a pass friendly offense, Clair should also have a great role as a receiving back — 13 receptions, 129 yards, and two touchdowns as a freshman.
Scott Miller, WR, Bowling Green
Bowling Green had a solid trio of receivers in 2017, but Teo Redding is auditioning for an NFL role and Datrin Guyton was dismissed from the team after a robbery charge. That leaves senior Scott Miller in control of the wideout group. Miller’s 2017 (722 yards, 4 TD) wasn’t nearly as productive as his sophomore year (968 yards, 10 TD), but Miller’s three most productive games in 2017 all occurred with Doege under center. With a reliable quarterback, the receiver should be able to rebound to his full potential in his final year in orange and brown.
Keys to the Game
Bowling Green has to play defense if it wants to keep the score respectable. Offense has never been a problem for the Falcons, but they lost games with scores of 48-30 and 66-37 a year ago. One of the team’s top defenders, outside linebacker Armani Posey, was dismissed from the team in July, making an already struggling unit take another punch. Free safety Jamari Bozeman should be the unit’s top player, but the defensive line, linebackers, and cornerbacks must all make extreme improvements in order to stop Justin Herbert’s offense. If Oregon hits the 14 mark on its first two possessions, that is a concerning mark for the Falcons’ defense and the game is probably in the books.
Force the Ducks into a good, old classic shootout. Bowling Green currently sits at 33-point underdogs during its across-the-country adventure in the Pacific Northwest. If the Falcons want to do the unthinkable and spoil the Ducks’ opener, the offense is going to have to create a string of big plays and constantly rewrite the number on the scoreboard. Avoiding interceptions and momentum-reducing plays is mandatory for Doege and the Falcons. Doege must finish with over 300 yards passing, connecting with his wideouts on various deep balls in order for the Falcons to stay within striking distance. It’s unlikely, but we’ve seen teams like Eastern Washington drop 42 on the Ducks in recent history (and still lose by 19).
Time and Date: Saturday, September 1, 8:00 p.m. EST
Network: Pac-12 Network
Venue: Autzen Stadium (60,000) — Eugene, OR
Spread: Oregon (-33)
ESPN FPI Predictor: Oregon has 93.7% chance to win
Series history: Nebraska leads 1-0.
Here’s a coincidence. The only meeting between these programs was an opener at Memorial Stadium, set in the year 1997. Nebraska won with ease, 59-14. The quarterback for the Cornhuskers was none other than head coach Scott Frost, who led Nebraska to an undefeated record and national championship. Nebraska fans may look at this as good omen for the beginning of the Frost era.
Oregon is going to win handily. There’s little chance of an upset in this one, and the Ducks have a good history of throttling Group of Five programs in September. Even a talented 8-5 team like Wyoming learned that the hard way a year ago.
Herbert will have a stellar game against Bowling Green’s porous pass defense, and there will be plenty of time for the backups to gain valuable experience. The No. 24 Ducks will defend their AP Poll rank for now, a rank which seemed a little premature after a 7-6 season that ended in a bowl loss. Luckily for the Falcons, this could be the only ranked opponent they run into all year. Doege, Clair, and the rest of the gang will see better performances in the coming weeks.
Prediction: Oregon 52, Bowling Green 17