Every year from 2016 until climaxing in 2020, Bowling Green regressed from bad to worse in its scoring defense rank with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.
Tenth-to-last, then eighth-to-last.
Sixth-to-last, then fifth-to-last.
Then, in the pandemic-riddled 2020 campaign, the Falcons stumbled to an 0-5 record while permitting an alarming 45 points per contest, falling to second-to-last in the process. There stood a program in desperate need of a spark.
The following spring, longtime NFL and collegiate defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder retired from his role at Bowling Green, creating a vacancy for anyone willing to accept the challenge of transforming a defense in dire need of a change in direction.
Enter defensive backs coach Eric Lewis, an internal hire who was willing to step in when the team needed him most.
Lewis launched his coaching career as a Michigan State graduate assistant in 2001, with his only previous defensive coordinator experience limited to one year in 2009 on a winless Eastern Michigan squad. Now at his fourth MAC stop as an assistant coach, Lewis was ready for another shot to resurrect a defense. And thanks to that short stint in Ypsilanti, the longtime assistant came armed with past experience to set him up for a more favorable outcome at Bowling Green.
“It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are. You better have some good players,” Lewis said, reflecting on his first defensive coordinator stint. “That was a challenging situation (at Eastern Michigan), the first year taking over a program. I think it really emphasized the importance of recruiting more than anything else. It’s not how great of a play-caller you are, it’s not how great of a motivational speaker you are — if you don’t have really good players, you’re gonna struggle in any aspect of college football whether it’s offense, defense, or special teams.”
Despite the 2020 Falcons’ collective performance on defense during the COVID campaign, one in which they lost every contest by 25 or more points, Lewis saw a lot of potential in the locker room. He reasoned that the disastrous results from the prior campaign could be attributed to a number of factors, ranging from the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic to the abundance of freshmen on the roster.
But there was no question to Lewis the talent was certainly present at Bowling Green.
“We were up in the air, we didn’t know if we were gonna have a season, so there was a lot of difficulties as far as that’s concerned,” Lewis said. “We had an extraordinarily young team. I think we had 65 freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the roster that year. It was just a matter of getting everyone on the same page and with so many young kids, getting them to understand what is needed to be a successful college program. They had no idea so it takes a little time to build and having a pandemic doesn’t help build that kind of culture.”
Transforming the trajectory of an FBS defense does not happen overnight. Lewis understood he would encounter a myriad of obstacles when he accepted the defensive coordinator role. So, he laid the foundation for progress by studying his players and determining which schemes best suited their talents.
“I think you’ve got to take it one day at a time,” Lewis said. “Set your goals. Know what you’re trying to accomplish on a day-to-day basis whether it’s changing the culture, whether it’s improving your talent level, and then creating a philosophy schematically that’s gonna work best for the players. Whether you take over a great defense or a defense that’s struggling, you need to make sure your scheme fits your personnel.”
Free safety Jordan Anderson joined the program in 2019, one year prior to Lewis’ arrival. But the 2021 All-MAC selection could sense a turnaround in the defensive back room from the moment Lewis stepped into the facilities, citing the coach’s vast knowledge he displayed from his previous two decades of coaching.
“He’s been in football for so long and he’s very wise and knowledgeable not just for defense, but for everybody,” Anderson said. “When he went to defensive coordinator, we were all happy because we already built that bond and relationship with him. In the COVID season, he got to call a game as d-coordinator because our d-coordinator got out for contact tracing. He was just vibing. His play calling was so tenacious and it got everybody fired up. We all really liked the game when he called his plays, so it gave everybody hope.”
All of the trials and tribulations ultimately resulted in a groundbreaking, program-changing win — thanks to that tenacious play-calling.
The Falcons entered their contest against Minnesota on Sept. 25, 2021 as a 31-point road underdog, a death sentence by most sportsbook metrics, but came away with an unthinkable result, upsetting the Golden Gophers by a final score of 14-10. Bowling Green pulled off the incredible feat by relying on a relentless defense and aggressive play-calling, which involved members of the secondary invading the backfield on a consistent basis.
“When you’re going into a game like that, nobody expects you to win except the people in your corner,” Anderson said. “This is really gonna test and prove who we are. Can we go on the road against a Big Ten team and win? We were able to do that, so it was just a bunch of high emotions. We were ready to prove ourselves to the nation that we were capable of doing that.”
Prove themselves they did on that fateful afternoon in Minneapolis, stifling the Golden Gophers (who eventually finished the season 9-4) to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Lewis’ defense had its signature engraved all over the field — recording four sacks and limiting Minnesota to 59 passing yards on a 38 percent completion rate. After controlling the line of scrimmage all game, the secondary put on the finishing touches by corralling two interceptions on the Golden Gophers’ only two snaps in the final three minutes to ensure the victory.
“We definitely have that aggressive identity,” Anderson said on the impetus to the Minnesota win. “That’s what he teaches. When you’re aggressive, it throws off the quarterback’s whole momentum. But I wouldn’t say we’re just straight aggressive in the backfield. We also caught a lot of deflections and interceptions. Still, we definitely want to have that aggressive, tenacious, physical mentality as a secondary.”
The performance against Minnesota ultimately proved to be the rule, not the exception, as the 2021 Falcons defense yielded its fewest points per game since the 2015 MAC championship run, decreasing its allotment from 45.0 in 2020 to 30.7 in 2021.
Where the Falcons improved the most was on the ground, cutting opposing rushing yards per game from an FBS-worst 310 (nearly 37 yards more than the next-worst team) to just 188 yards over the course of one season. The passing defense, which was top 10 by choice in 2020, found itself top 10 by performance in 2021, keeping three of the first five quarterbacks they faced to at or under 50 percent completion percentage. The unit maintained a 58 percent completion rate overall, demonstrating the degree to which the Falcons’ pass rush and coverage meshed together.
“We had a new defensive coordinator and a new defensive identity, so we were out to show it,” Anderson said on Bowling Green’s strong start in non-conference play. “(Lewis) always prides ourselves that we’re not just gonna be the best in the conference, but the best in the nation. Those non-conference games are typically big games, so if everybody says they want to be the best defense in the country, then prove it against better competition.”
As expected with a young and developing defense, replicating the performances that transpired in Minnesota and in non-conference play on a week-to-week basis was not simple.
In late-October and early-November, the Falcons trudged through a three-week span where they allowed 148 points to MAC opponents. Still, signs of progress were evident and Lewis realizes there are solutions to preventing this late-season fatigue from clouding the team’s defensive potential.
“It’s always gonna start with the consistency in practice,” Lewis said. “Keeping our guys fresh is another thing. I think we wore down a bit throughout the season last year. Part of that will be the added depth to the roster. We had guys that played almost every snap throughout the entire season and you can’t do that and expect to have that high level of play continue.”
Despite taking its lumps in the conference season which saw flirtation with those old numbers, Bowling Green now realizes its capability to rebrand as a defensive power in the MAC.
The signs of potential are certainly evident, as suggested from last year’s promising non-conference run. Lewis looks to crank it up another notch in his second year as defensive coordinator and leave the days of bottom 10 defenses behind. This time he will have both a heap of returning starters and elevated expectations ahead of the 2022 campaign.
“Our expectation is to be one: be the best defense in the conference, and two: be one of the better overall defenses in the country. I really feel we can do that,” Lewis said. “I think we showed it at stretches last season. Consistency is what’s really gonna take us from being a good MAC team to being an outstanding national defense, and we think we can do that.”