The afternoon of September 25, 2021 is a moment that will always resonate within the Bowling Green faithful. Five years of futility wedged in between Bowling Green’s 2015 MAC championship run and Saturday’s iconic upset over Minnesota — the first FBS non-conference victory for the Falcons since 2015.
When Bowling Green collapsed following Dino Babers’ departure in 2015, the wheels fell off hard. The Falcons suffered 67 and 74-point losses in non-conference play during their MAC title defense season. Then, the 2017 through 2020 timeframe featured an endless cycle of perpetual motion in the basement of college football.
After snapping a 10-game win streak the week prior, Bowling Green finally earned the signature win to steer the program in a winning trajectory. The Falcons entered enemy territory and left Minnesota’s offense hapless in a 14-10 upset. How shocking of a victory was this? According to ESPN Stats & Info, Bowling Green (+30.5) pulled off the largest upset since 2012 in terms of the Vegas point spread.
Now that head coach Scot Loeffler and his 2-2 Falcons are riding a tidal wave of momentum into conference play, how sustainable is this newfound success? We break down offensive and defensive takeaways from the greatest upset of the 2021 football season.
Bowling Green will go as far as the defense takes them
Anyone who watched Bowling Green football the past five seasons probably did not see this breakthrough coming — the Falcons are a defensive juggernaut. After all this was a team that fell on the wrong end of countless blowouts. Two weeks ago, Bowling Green were in the midst of a streak of nine consecutive losses by 28+ points.
This defense went from bad to worse each season since the 2015 MAC title. In 2016, Bowling Green allowed the 13th most points per game. In 2017, that number inflated to eighth. A year later it became sixth, then fifth, and in 2020, the Falcons’ defense allowed 45 points per game — the second worst scoring defense in the country.
This offseason, to address issues on defense, cornerbacks coach Eric Lewis was promoted to defensive coordinator. Lewis’ previous FBS defensive coordinator experience is limited to a one-year stint at Eastern Michigan in 2009. But the internal promotion is working wonders for the program. Signs of an improved defense were on the horizon when limiting Tennessee to 14 first half points in Week 1. Since the Tennessee game, Bowling Green has yielded just four touchdowns in three contests.
Minnesota’s offense only managed one touchdown drive on the Falcons (and one field goal as a result of a short field), but it wasn’t opportune red zone turnovers that prevented the Gophers from scoring. Bowling Green simply stopped them in their tracks, again and again. Minnesota converted 5/14 third down attempts and fared 1/2 on fourth downs. The fourth down that wasn’t converted probably holds the designation as the most important play of Bowling Green’s season. Operating with a 3-0 lead, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck tested the odds of a 4th and 1 from his own 29-yard line. A handoff to Trey Potts was immediately obstructed by Bowling Green’s defense which wrapped up the halfback for a 5-yard loss.
We’ll talk about the offense later, but as a result of the defensive stop, Bowling Green only needed 24 yards to reach the end zone, and that field position was absolutely necessary for the Falcons’ scoring effort.
Remove Potts’ 54-yard outlier run and Bowling Green controlled the line of scrimmage for the most part, limiting the tailback to 3.3 yards per carry. In 2020, the Falcons ranked dead last in the FBS by a country mile in rushing yards allowed per game. It was promising to see Bowling Green consistently shed blocks, wrap up ball carriers at first contact, and hold their own when pitted against one of the elite rushing teams in college football.
Even though Bowling Green contained Minnesota’s rushing attack with reasonable success, the manner in which the Falcons dominated the Gophers’ passing game was even more immaculate. For starters, Coach Lewis sent heavy pressure early and often. The Falcons registered four sacks on Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. But one highly-aggressive play call resulted in two vital third down stops: the corner blitz. On two occasions, Lewis sent cornerback Davon Ferguson to invade the backfield. Both times Ferguson flew off the edge unblocked, with a full head of steam to level Morgan and force fourth down.
Dealing with heightened pressure, the 2019 All-Big Ten quarterback only connected on 5/13 passes. Minnesota has demonstrated heavy reliance on the run game since the 2020 season. Predictably, Fleck didn’t attack the air as often, but Bowling Green won just about every passing play — causing the Gophers to remain grounded at an even higher rate.
When the clock played in Bowling Green’s favor in the final minutes and Minnesota needed aerial progress, the Falcons responded with their first takeaways of the afternoon. The Gophers ran two plays in the final 3:30 and both resulted in interceptions. And of course, immense pressure from the defensive line certainly played a factor in those clutch defensive plays.
Overall, Saturday’s 14-10 victory was an absolute masterclass on defense. So much credit belongs to Eric Lewis and his defensive staff for turning around a unit which ranked toward the bottom of a bevy of defensive categories in 2020. With the unit flying around in such a dominant manner all afternoon, there’s belief that Bowling Green can relive its glory days from the mid-2010s and compete for a MAC title again.
The offense still needs refinement
What a win for Bowling Green... but that offensive performance cannot happen again. As limited as Minnesota’s offense was against a tenacious Falcon defense, Fleck’s squad still out-gained Bowling Green, 241-192. The lack of offensive consistency hampered, but didn't destroy, Bowling Green’s chances at pulling off the upset. But without the gift of short field position from the defense’s 4th and 1 stop, who knows if the Falcons ever appear on the scoreboard in the first half?
The inability to establish a ground game is Bowling Green’s most pressing issue at the moment. This sudden drop-off in rushing production is head-scratching because that was clearly the Falcons’ greatest asset during their winless 2020 campaign. Against FBS teams this year, Bowling Green’s rushing totals are 32 (1.4 yards per carry), 9 (0.5 yards per carry), and 22 (0.9 yards per carry). Even against FCS opponent Murray State, all the Falcons could chalk up was 2.7 yards per carry. In those three games against FBS opponents, not a single player registered more than 26 rushing yards. Unsurprisingly, the Falcons’ rushing attack ranks last in the FBS by a margin of 14 yards.
Jaison Patterson led the charge Saturday against Minnesota with 20 yards on eight carries. No matter who lines up at tailback, almost every handoff results in little to no production for the Falcons. Patterson’s longest scamper of the day spanned seven yards, which is one of Bowling Green’s best this season. Only once has a Falcon halfback racked up more than eight yards on a rushing attempt vs. an FBS defense — Nick Mosley’s 24-yard gain at Tennessee on Week 1.
But one aspect of the running game still works to perfection. Despite the lack of output, Bowling Green strung together a pair of rushing touchdowns in Minneapolis. Near the goal line, the go-to option has become quarterback Matt McDonald, but not by means of his arm. Short McDonald runs account for 50 percent (3/6) of all Bowling Green offensive touchdowns this season. Against Minnesota, the tough, physical runner took a speed option and a QB draw into the end zone as the issuer of both Falcon touchdowns in the victory.
As a passer, McDonald has noticeably made massive strides in 2021. Establishing an offense built on a foundation of quick slants, dump offs, and passes to the flats is essentially replacing the run game. As a result of a more favorable playbook, McDonald’s completion percentage skyrocketed from 43.9 percent in 2020 to 66.9 percent through four games in 2021.
McDonald’s targets have also been sharp. In Minnesota, tight end Christian Sims was the vital piece on offense who kept possessions alive. Sims utilized his strength to handle several contested catches en route to a 6-reception, 51-yard performance. Washington transfer Austin Osborne — a high school teammate of McDonald’s in California — is also an ideal short yardage target with a 2021 average exceeding six receptions per contest. When it comes to fighting through contact and breaking tackles, the 6’4” receiver Tyrone Broden is the optimal threat. The wealth has been spread primarily through the aforementioned weapons — and all three currently boast between 172 and 181 yards this year.
But the issue with an offense built on short, efficient throws is that 20+ yard gains aren’t typical. Thus, Bowling Green must sustain drives for longer periods of time in order to score, and eventually the steam often runs out. The steam ran out far too often Saturday, which resulted in Bowling Green punting to Minnesota on eight separate occasions.
Through four games of non-conference play, the Falcons’ defense has established itself as one of the premier units in the conference. Permitting just 14 points per game over a three week span proves that this Minnesota game is no fluke, but rather a sign of things to come. However, if Bowling Green wants to complete the leap back to bowl season and conference contention, establishing the offense — namely the run — is of utmost performance.
The expectations are suddenly elevated for a program that amassed a 12-41 record in the previous five seasons. No matter where Bowling Green winds up in 2021, it’s incredible to look back at those five years and appreciate how all that hardship finally converted into an upset for the ages. That win can provide the fuel to drive the program back to where it needs to be.