- Date and time: Saturday, September 3 at 2:30 p.m. ET
- Network: Pac-12 Network
- Location: Rose Bowl — Pasadena, CA
- Spread: UCLA (-24.5)
- ESPN FPI: UCLA has 96.9% chance to win
- All-time series: No previous matchups
Setting the scene
The iconic Rose Bowl opens its doors for college football for the first time in the 2022 calendar year since New Year’s Day, welcoming the Bowling Green Falcons to a scenic area of Southern California amidst the San Gabriel Mountains. This is Bowling Green’s first time at the venue, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2022, and is soon to be labeled as Big Ten territory in 2024.
The Falcons, by way of a relentless defense, shocked Minnesota 14-10 in non-conference play last year as 31-point underdogs, so they aim to carry that same mentality into this contest against an improved UCLA squad which fared 8-4 last season.
Bowling Green Falcons outlook
Scot Loeffler enters year four at the helm, with sights set on attaining bowl eligibility for his first time — a feat Bowling Green hasn’t enjoyed since 2015. Last year’s season appeared to be a disappointing 4-8 on paper, but overall, it was a campaign of marked improvement, especially on the defensive side.
Bowling Green captured a statement win by stunning a 9-4 Minnesota team on the road in low-scoring fashion. While the Falcons didn’t upend any other team with a winning record, they came within one possession of both 2021 MAC Championship Game participants Northern Illinois and Kent State.
2021 was a step in the right direction. Now 2022 is expected to be a leap forward, especially considering the veteran talent the team retained on the defensive side of the ball. Defense was the worst aspect of Bowling Green football in 2020 when the team ranked second-to-last in points allowed per game and dead last in stopping the run. But now, that facet of the game is Bowling Green’s calling card.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Eric Lewis, the 2021 Falcons finished with their best total defense since 2013, yielding 374 yards per outing — a massive upgrade from the 476 yards allowed in the year prior. There is All-MAC caliber talent across the unit, ranging from defensive end Karl Brooks, who spearheaded the pass rush with 7.5 sacks, to Butkus, Nagurski, and Bednarik Award watchlist member Darren Anders, who compiled 124 tackles at outside linebacker to rank second in the MAC, along with 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
The front seven possesses additional key pieces such as middle linebacker Brock Horne, who returns to the unit after ranking second with 89 tackles in 2021. The presence of developing stars like Anders and Horne drastically sharpened the Falcons’ run defense last year, cutting its allotment by 122 yards per game.
Perhaps the title of most fortified unit on the roster belongs to the veteran secondary. Bowling Green ranked ninth in the FBS in fewest passing yards allowed, and forcing opposing quarterbacks to a 58.4 percent completion rate certainly played a part. Members of the Falcons’ secondary are not only coverage artists, but they make their presence felt in the backfield. Cornerback Davon Ferguson registered eight tackles for loss and two sacks last year while free safety Jordan Anderson collected three tackles for loss in addition to three interceptions. To further strengthen the defensive back room, Georgia State transfer Chris Bacon joined the group this offseason, and he comes with day one starting potential to fill the void of former strong safety Devin Taylor.
Offensively, Bowling Green remains searching for answers. Improvement on this side of the ball is what really controls how far this team goes in 2022. The Falcons ranked 109th nationally with 21.4 points per game, and outside of one 56-point explosion against Buffalo, the team never tallied more than 27 points last fall. Ranking 11 spots away from last place in the run game, Bowling Green hopes for significantly more production from its running backs. Terion Stewart opted out of the season after a respectable 5.9 yards per carry in 2021, so without their main back, the Falcons are expected to rely on a rotation of Nick Mosley, Jaison Patterson, Taron Keith, and Jamal Johnson before eventually settling on the hot hand. These rushers will operate behind an offensive line full of incoming transfer talent, including longtime Cincinnati starting center Jakari Robinson.
In the passing game, the Falcons return former Boston College quarterback Matt McDonald, who enters his third year as Loeffler’s starter. McDonald skyrocketed his completion percentage from 43.9 to 60.1 percent and his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 1-to-6 to 12-to-7 from year one to year two as QB No. 1, looking to expand upon those improvements in 2022. With a sharper McDonald leading the unit, Bowling Green’s passing attack remains the strong point of the offense, despite ranking 84th in the FBS in production.
The Falcons have the luxury of sending out a First Team All-MAC tight end in Christian Sims, who captured 41 receptions for 418 yards in 2021. Other options in McDonald’s receiving corps include incumbent receiving yards leader Tyrone Broden, short-yardage specialist and 2021 receptions leader Austin Osborne, as well as transfers such as C.J. Lewis (Boston College) and Odieu Hiliare (Alabama A&M).
UCLA Bruins outlook
Chip Kelly got his fastball back. By guiding UCLA to 8-4, the seasoned college football and NFL head coach accomplished his first winning season since 2014, when he led the Philadelphia Eagles to a 10-6 record. With Pac-12 divisions scrapped and a heap of returning talent, Kelly hopes his Bruins can stand out among the pack and qualify for their first conference title game since 2012.
One contributing factor to the program’s rise from the ashes was the establishment of a dominant run game. This trend brewed during the Bruins’ brief COVID-inflicted 2020 campaign but came to full fruition in 2021, averaging the 11th largest rushing output in the FBS at 220 yards per game. UCLA’s 1,100-yard back Zach Charbonnet returns to the huddle, bringing his signature downhill running style to this offense. The Bruins lose their secondary option in Brittain Brown, so Keegan Jones looks to take over that role after handling 26 carries last year.
Another excellent rusher back in the lineup is longterm quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson. The senior approaches his fifth and final season as a Bruin and his fourth as the primary starter. Fortunately for “DTR,” he improves on a yearly basis, and 2021 was his best showing yet with 2,409 passing yards and career-highs in yards per attempt and rushing total.
He’ll be required to discover new threats in the receiving game, however. Wide receivers Kyle Philips and tight end Greg Dulcich were the only two Bruins to eclipse 25 receptions last year. Both First Team All-Pac-12 selections are currently in the NFL after hauling in 59 and 42 catches in 2021, respectively. Kazmeir Allen and Kam Brown are set to fill the vacancies in the receiving room after combining for 34 receptions, 502 yards, and six touchdowns on nearly identical stat-lines. UCLA also stacked up on receiver depth via the transfer portal, acquiring longtime Duke standout Jake Bobo and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala — who relocated to the west coast after a solid true freshman season at UCF.
The theme of restocking with transfers carried over to the defense as well. North Texas’ top two sack leaders — brothers Gabriel and Grayson Murphy — both joined the Bruins after registering a collective 16 sacks last year. The talented pass rushing brothers are certainly welcome additions to the lineup after the departure of edge rusher Mitchell Agude, who forced four fumbles and totaled 6.5 tackles for loss in 2021. But the notable transfer additions extend beyond the former Mean Green stars — cornerback Azizi Hearn and middle linebacker Darius Muasau, coming from Wyoming and Hawaii, respectively, are other newcomers slated to make Week 1 starts for Kelly’s squad.
UCLA’s defense is under new leadership now, as Chicago Bears inside linebackers coach Bill McGovern takes over at defensive coordinator for Jerry Azzinaro, who resigned in January. Azzinaro’s group proved potent in limiting the run last year, containing opponents to approximately 128 yards per game to rank 27th in the FBS. The passing defense was a different story though. The Bruins allowed over 285 passing yards in three of their four losses in 2021, including a 455-yard explosion by Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener in mid-September.
The defense forced a solid amount of interceptions, and takeaways in general, but when those turnovers weren’t accessible, sometimes stops were hard to come by through the air. Opponents averaged 260 passing yards on the UCLA secondary, situating the Bruins at 108th nationally. The defensive back room lost its most talented prospect in strong safety Quentin Lake as well as former Kent State nickelback Qwauntrezz Knight, who led the unit in tackles. Thus, Mo Osling III, a converted cornerback, is a name that must accelerate his impact as he enters 2022 with three starts under his belt.
Analysis and prediction
The key matchup in this contest transpires when UCLA possesses the ball. As witnessed in Bowling Green’s landmark upset over Minnesota last September, the Falcons’ defense alone can carry itself to victory.
Expect aggressive play-calling from defensive coordinator Eric Lewis, who usually approaches these non-conference games with a leave-it-all-on-the-field approach. Corner and safety blitzes featuring Davon Ferguson and Jordan Anderson may be common occurrences, keeping UCLA’s blockers on their heels all afternoon.
Considering the veteran talent in Bowling Green’s defense, the Falcons should be strong enough to prevent this one from getting completely out of hand. Anything is on the table if this defense shows another level of improvement after a stellar showing last fall. However, the offense was in a lull quite frequently last year — including in that aforementioned Minnesota game. If Bowling Green fails to establish the run game like it did in 2021 non-conference play, it could be a long day for a Falcon offense, constantly facing 3rd and longs. Those unwanted down and distance situations lead to the inability to sustain long drives, and that ripple effect is then felt on the defensive side, where aspects such as disadvantageous field position and fatigue factor in.
UCLA, by means of its Zach Charbonnet and DTR-led rushing attack, enters the Rose Bowl with significantly more offensive firepower than Bowling Green. Expect this one to remain close early, but for the Bruins to eventually pull away by several touchdowns.
Prediction: UCLA 34, Bowling Green 14