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Bowling Green’s Road to Detroit Looks Familiar But Is New Model Better?

Win at Akron almost assures Falcons will repeat as MAC East Champions. Journey seems the same, but this year's team is doing it differently.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Bowling Green Falcons rode a strong defense and an offense that suddenly found itself in the second half of the season to drive to a Mid-American Conference championship.  The Falcons experienced a heart-breaking home loss to rival Toledo on October 26, and then gathered themselves to rip-off four MAC victories against Miami, Ohio, Eastern Michigan and Buffalo.  And of course, they went on to dominate Northern Illinois in the championship game in Detroit, 47-27.

If that sounds familiar, it's because this year's team is in an identical position.  They suffered a tough home loss in late October, this time to Western Michigan, and now face a four-game stretch to win the MAC East and get back to Detroit in early-December.

On Tuesday night, the Falcons started their 2014 season-ending home stretch with a decisive 27-10 win at Akron.  The win gives the Falcons control of the MAC East division with a 4-1 league record.  The Falcons have a two-game lead and hold the tie breaker on the rest of the division.  The Falcons need to win only one of their remaining three games (Kent State, Toledo, Ball State) to punch their ticket to the MAC championship game for the second consecutive year.

So while the path this year's team is taking to the east division title is comparable to last season, that is where the similarities between the two teams end.  Last year's Falcon squad was led by a defense that dominated games.  This year's defense has struggled mightily for much of the year; however they have shown signs of improvement the last few games.  If they can return to anything close to last year's level, it will bode well for their chances in the MAC championship game and their expected bowl game.

Another difference in this year's team has been on the offensive side of the ball.  Last year's team, with currently injured quarterback Matt Johnson, averaged more than 40 points a game in its final six games of the year (including MAC championship and bowl game).  This year's offense, while productive in stretches, has not yet reached that level of efficiency or consistency.

So what has change for the Falcon offense?  Most of the offensive playmakers returned this year so why the struggles?  Let's take a closer look.

Quarterback
I need to start off by saying what a fantastic job James Knapke has done coming in for the injured Johnson and putting this team in a position to win the MAC East.  He had thrown a total of a dozen passes in his career before becoming the starter late in the opening game of the season.  His ability to learn and execute Coach Dino Babers' new offense in real time has been nothing short of remarkable.

Having said that, at this point of his career he is not the player Johnson is.  Johnson had the ability to make a play outside of the pocket and always put the ball where his receivers could catch it.  Knapke has thrown nine interceptions this year and probably had another nine that should have been picked off.  Johnson threw only seven picks all of last season.

So again, no knock on what Knapke has accomplished so far, but Johnson had that "it" factor that Knapke doesn't have... at least not yet.

Coaching/System
Last year's offense under former coach Dave Clawson was a completely different beast.  The team featured a great running attack (Travis Greene with 1,600+ yards) and Johnson throwing the ball around and using the entire field.  Clawson also knew how to use the tight end position effectively.  Alex Bayer (currently with St. Louis Rams) and Tyler Beck combined for nearly 50 receptions, 700 yards and six touchdowns last year.  This year's offense does not utilize a traditional tight end alignment.

This year's offense was expected to be high scoring, especially when Babers took over with his reputation as a very offensive-minded coach.  They even developed a nick name, FalconFast, because of the up-tempo style that Babers prefers to play.  But, learning to play that fast where you run a play every 15 to 20 seconds, has probably been counterproductive to the offense at times this season.  When it works, it's a thing of beauty.  Just watch the Indiana game this year to find evidence of that.  However, too often the up-tempo has created quick three-and-out drives that put the defense in the difficult situation of being on the field a lot.

Babers’ offense also relies on a lot of short, quick passes: slants, middle screens, and wide receiver screens. Where as last year’s offense used the whole field and was particularly dangerous on the middle-of-the-field routes. Maybe Babers has those in the playbook but is hesitant to call them given Knapke’s inexperience and penchant for throwing interceptions? But with all the weapons the Falcons have, they would probably take the offense up a notch or two if they started utilizing some of those crossing routes.

So what does all this mean?  Can the Bowling Green defense develop into a solid unit again and spearhead the Falcons on to a win in Detroit and in a bowl game?  Can the offense recapture some of the magic from last year and earlier this season to again light-up the scoreboard?  Will this offense be even better next season with a year under their belt in Babers' system and when a healthy Johnson returns?

This should be an interesting and fun end to the 2014 season for Bowling Green.  Enjoy the ride Falcon fans and don't think about the "what ifs?"