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2022 Non-Conference Opponent Primer: Bowling Green Falcons

Can this be the year that the Falcons return to the postseason? The non-conference schedule won’t make it easy.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 10 Toledo at Bowling Green Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve officially entered year four of the Scot Loeffler era at Bowling Green. Though the results have not always been pretty for Loeffler in northwest Ohio, the Falcons showed signs of legitimate progress last year. A September win at Minnesota (as a 31 point underdog, no less) gave Bowling Green fans their first legitimate hope since watching Dino Babers lead the Falcons to a MAC title in 2015. Conference wins against Buffalo and Ohio later in the year gave fans a reason to look forward to the 2023 season, and this team is poised to be Loeffler’s best yet.

The Falcons will be one of the most experienced teams in the country this year, with 18 returning starters and experienced veterans on both sides of the ball. QB Matt McDonald was vastly improved last year, completing 60% of his passes, and enters his third year as the starter under center. The top five running backs return and will be rushing behind what should be a vastly improved offensive line. The defense was vastly improved last year, and unit leaders Darren Anders and Davon Ferguson return with the hopes of continuing the upward trend.

The question becomes, can this be the year that this once proud program can return to a bowl game? Obviously, the schedule plays a big part in determining that. Much like their conference peers, the Falcons have quite the non-conference slate this year, including two road trips to visit Power Five opponents. Let’s take a look at each of these teams and see how Bowling Green matches up:

Saturday, Sept. 3: Bowling Green @ UCLA Bruins

California v UCLA Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images

The Falcons head west to take on Chip Kelly’s UCLA Bruins in week one, in what will be the first ever meeting between the two programs. This is year five of the Kelly era in Westwood, and the Bruins are coming off their best season of his tenure in 2021. Bolstered by a balanced offense and a three game win streak in November, UCLA finished the year 8-4 (6-3 in the PAC 12), good enough for second place in the PAC 12 South. Kelly had failed to reach a bowl game in his first three years on campus, so the eight-win campaign did a good bit to quell any “hot seat” talk.

Offensively, this is a team that was incredibly balanced offensively. On the year, the Bruins averaged 223 yards per game on the ground, and 225 through the air. It’s tough to be more balanced than that. The rushing attack was led by former Michigan RB Zach Charbonnet, who rushed for 1,169 yards and 13 TD’s while averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Dual threat QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson proved to be more than capable with his feet as well, adding in 609 rush yards and nine scores of his own. Kelly’s teams always look to establish the run, though the Bruins do have to replace three starters on the offensive line this year and may take a step back in this category. The top three receivers from last year have also departed, though the speedy Kazmeir Allen still poses a threat. The junior caught four TD’s and averaged 15 yards per catch last year.

Defensively, this was a unit that could be had last year, ranking in the bottom half of the PAC 12 in most statistical categories. The pass defense was especially vulnerable, ranking ninth in the PAC 12 and 111th nationally by allowing 260 yards per game through the air. Former starters Obi Eboh and Cam Johnson have both departed, so this secondary could be a weak spot that the Falcons can exploit. The defensive line figures to be much stronger, with Duke transfer DT Gary Smith poised to pair with Jay Toia up front. Pass protection will be paramount for Bowling Green if they want to give themselves a chance in this one.

This is an interesting match up. The Falcons played giant killer once last year, and they’ll look to re-create that magic in the Rose Bowl to open up the 2022 campaign. A victory here would do wonders for confidence.

Saturday, Sept. 10: Bowling Green vs. Eastern Kentucky Colonels

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 12 Eastern Kentucky at West Virginia Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This is the sixth all time meeting between the Falcons and the Colonels, and you may be surprised to learn that Eastern Kentucky actually leads the all-time series 3-2. Bowling Green won the last match up in 2018, knocking off the Colonels 42-35 at the Doyt.

EKU is a perfectly capable FCS foe, though a cut below the FCS giants such as North Dakota State and new FBS member James Madison. The Colonels are coming off of a 7-4 season in 2021, which included a 30-3 loss to Louisville in their only FBS match up. Head coach Walt Wells is in his third year in charge of the program and owns a 10-10 record.

Though that 7-4 record may seem middle of the road, this is a team that enters the 2022 season with momentum. After finishing 3-6 in 2020, last years’ final record represented the biggest single season turnaround in Eastern Kentucky history. The Colonels were ranked as high as 19th in the FCS polls, and they capped off their season with a 39-31 victory over Jacksonville State in the Opportunity Bowl.

Offensively, redshirt senior Parker McKinney returns after earing second team All-OVC honors last season. McKinney completed 60.7% of his passes on the year, throwing for 2,429 yards and 18 TD’s. He was also the Colonels second leading rusher, amassing 596 rushing yards and six scores on a healthy 6.2 yards per carry average. At running back, Purdue transfer Da’Joun Hewitt also poses a threat, leading the Colonels in rushing yards and TD’s in 2021. This is an offense that averaged almost 28 points per game last fall, and they can certainly move the ball. Though the Falcons should have a talent edge here, they cannot afford to look past this EKU team.

Saturday, Sept. 17: Bowling Green vs. Marshall Thundering Herd

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 18 R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Louisiana v Marshall Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Falcons welcome former conference foe Marshall to Doyt-Perry Stadium for homecoming on September 17th, in a game that represents the 30th all-time meeting between the two programs.

The Thundering Herd are coming off of a 7-6 record in 2021, which included a 36-21 loss to Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl. The 2021 season marked the first under head coach Charles Huff, and the last for Marshall in Conference USA. Over the off-season, the Herd transitioned to the Sun Belt, where they have the talent to compete at the top of the league. Marshall may have only 11 starters returning this year, but they do return some of their most important contributors.

Offensively, it all starts with sophomore running back Rasheen Ali, who was named a FWAA Freshman All-American last year after running for 1,401 yards and leading the nation with 25 touchdowns. Ali figures to be central to the Marshall offense, and slowing him down will be paramount for Bowling Green if they want to have a shot in this game. On the outside, wide receiver Corey Gammage returns after leading the Herd with 78 catches 878 yards receiving in 2021.

Under center, Texas Tech transfer Henry Colombi, Jr. steps into the starting role after Grant Wells’ off-season transfer to Virginia Tech. Colombi comes in with pedigree, having thrown for 2,356 yards and 13 touchdowns last year for the Red Raiders. Any time you’re replacing a quarterback, there are going to be question marks. Based on his background and success at the Power Five level, Colombi does feel equipped to step in and be effective.

The Herd have a deep an experienced front seven on defense, and this unit could end up being one of the best in the Sun Belt. First Team All-Conference USA performer Abraham Beauplan leads the linebacking corps after compiling 110 tackles and 11 tackles for loss in 2021. Along the defensive line, Power Five transfers Anthony Watts (Purdue) and Isaiah Gibson (Kentucky) figure to solidify the Herd up front.

On the back end, senior cornerback Steven Gilmore (younger brother of NFL veteran Stephon Gilmore) returns after intercepting three passes and racking up 53 tackles last year. This secondary was the strength of the defense last year; Marshall ranked 28th in the FBS in pass defense, allowing on 205.3 yards per game through the air.

This game will be important for Bowling Green. After opening the season at UCLA and taking on an FCS foe in week two, this game could be our best chance to get a feel for the Falcons until conference play starts. A victory over the Herd would do wonders for the Falcons’ confidence.

Saturday, Sept. 24: Bowling Green @ Mississippi State Bulldogs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Ole Miss at Mississippi State Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Looking at Mississippi State over the past two years has been a mirror image of everywhere else Mike Leach has walked the sideline: the Bulldogs are going to throw the ball all over the field, and they don’t care if you know it.

Make no mistake about it, this game will be a test for the Bowling Green secondary.

QB Will Rogers was third in the FBS in passing last year, throwing for 4,739 yards and 36 touchdowns while completing 73.9% of his passes. There is no semblance of balance with this offense: Rogers attempted an astounding 683 passes last year, while the Bulldogs running backs combined for only 201 carries. This is a team that is going to force you to stop the pass, and they have a stable of capable pass catchers at Rogers’ disposal.

Recievers Jaden Walley and Austin Williams both return after catching over 50 passes last year, and running back Jo’quavious Marks provides a receiving threat out of the backfield, with 502 yards and three receiving touchdowns last season. The offensive line is replacing both tackles and is a question mark. If the Falcons want to have a chance in this one, exposing that weakness and getting pressure on Rogers will be key.

Defensively, the Bulldogs are a bit of a mixed bag. This team was incredibly stout against the run last year, ranking 12th in the FBS in rush defense at only 113 yards per game. Defensive end Jordan Davis missed last season with a torn ACL but is now healthy, and he will form a formidable duo up front with defensive tackle Jaden Crumedy. This is a unit that once again should be proficient at stopping the run.

On the back end, there are some question marks. Cornerback Martin Emerson led this unit last year but is no longer on campus, having been picked by Cleveland in the third round of Aprils’ NFL Draft. There’s not much experience returning here. This is a defense that relies heavily on pressure so that the secondary doesn’t have to cover for extended periods. If the Falcons can keep Matt McDonald upright in the pocket, there may be opportunities for this offense to hit some big plays down the field.

This feels like a big year for Scot Loeffler and his staff. If the Falcons can get back to a bowl game, all will be well in northwest Ohio, and there will be a sense that the program is on the right track. Another year of four or less wins, and Bowling Green may think about making a change. As is oftentimes the case with MAC teams, the Falcons have a daunting September ahead of them. Two trips to Power Five stadiums will be tough tasks, as will the visit from Marshall on homecoming. How the Falcons perform in these match up’s could go a long way towards determining their season.