Is the glass half full or half empty? That's the question most people ask themselves when reflecting on the 2014 season put together by the Bowling Green Falcon football team.
Expectations were through the roof at the start of the season, and for good reason. The defending Mid-Matt Johnson. On defense, the Falcons returned six starters and enough experienced substitutes from the MAC's best defense in 2013 to hold the promise of another very effective unit in 2014.Conference champions were returning a ton of players on both sides of the ball. On offense, they welcomed back all their skill position playmakers, including All-MAC quarterback
Yes, the Falcons did have to go through a coaching change when Dave Clawson took the Wake Forest job after the 2013 season. However, optimism ran rampant when Bowling Green named hot commodity Dino Babers from Eastern Illinois as its new head coach. Babers came in with the reputation as an offensive mastermind that learned at the feet of Art Briles at Baylor. He also was credited with coaching Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo into a second round NFL draft pick by the New England Patriots.
Nearly everyone from media, fans, and opposing coaches, picked the Falcons to repeat as MAC champs or at least to make it back to Detroit for the championship game. Those lofty expectations proved to be a heavy load to carry as the 2014 Falcons experienced a roller coaster ride due to a number of factors. Most notable among those were injuries, learning new systems on both side of the ball, and younger players on defense seeing their first significant game action of their careers.
So let's take a quick look back at the good, bad and ugly from the Falcons' 2014 season.
2014 Schedule & Results
|8/29||@ Western Kentucky||L, 59-31|
|9/27||@ UMass||W, 47-42|
|10/11||@ Ohio||W, 31-13|
|10/18||Western Michigan||L, 26-14|
|11/4||@ Akron||W, 27-10|
|11/12||Kent State||W, 30-20|
|11/19||@ Toledo||L, 27-20|
|11/28||Ball State||L, 41-24|
|12/5||Northern Illinois (MACCG)||L, 51-17|
|12/20||South Alabama (Carmelia Bowl)||W, 33-28|
Babers and his assistants came in and immediately installed their up-tempo style of offense. They even had a name for it, #FalconFast. The goal of the offense is to run a play every 15 seconds and move at a pace that keeps opposing defenses from making situational substitutions. What most of us didn't realize was how much of a learning curve would come with this new offense.
When we had last seen the Falcons on offense they were shredding the Northern Illinois Huskies in the 2013 MAC championship game. Surely with the unit returning almost intact, they would pick right up where they left off this year? Not exactly!
I think both the players and the coaches struggled at times to adjust to each other. The players were challenged in picking-up the new system and the coaches seemed inflexible and intent on forcing square pegs into round holes in their system.
But to be fair, injuries took their toll on the offensive plans from the very beginning. As the team started fall camp, news came out that veteran wide receiver Chris Gallon would miss the entire season due to a knee injury suffered in off-season workouts. Gallon is a big, physical wide receiver who missed half of the 2013 season with a similar knee injury.
But the biggest hit the Falcons took in 2014 was when they learned that Johnson would miss the remainder of the season after injuring his hip in the fourth quarter of their shocking opening season loss at Western Kentucky. Johnson was the key to making #FalconFast go and suddenly he was gone. The truth is, Johnson and the Falcon offense struggled in that opening loss to get on-track, but you certainly would have loved to have seen what that offense would have been able to do with Johnson under center all year.
Instead, the Falcons turned to sophomore James Knapke who had attempted only 10 passes in his career to that point. Through spring ball and fall camp, Knapke got the amount of reps you expect from a back-up quarterback, not many. So he was basically starting for the first time in his career and learning a new offense all in real time in games that counted. With all those odds stacked against him, Knapke played remarkably well. Bowling Green would not have won the east division and made it back to the MAC championship game this year without James Knapke.
As to be expected, Knapke did have his ups and downs throughout the season. In fact, his highs and lows kind of mirrored the team's season. He had a 395-yard, three touchdown performance in the Falcons' upset of Indiana. That included the game-winning touchdown pass as time expired against the Hoosiers. He also had other games with 443 yards (UMass), 321 yards (Buffalo), and 315 yards (Kent State) passing. Knapke ended the season on a high note in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl with 368 yards passing and two scores, including the 76-yard game-winner with less than a minute to play.
However, Knapke also had some games late in the year where he and the Falcon offense struggled. Those struggles were so noticeable that Knapke was replaced late in a few games by true freshman Cody Callaway. But I am not convinced that all those problems were his fault. The playbook seemed to shrink late in the year as the coaches looked like they were protecting him from turnovers by calling "safer" plays. In actuality, the conservative play calling, instead of throwing the ball around as they were doing earlier in the year, probably contributed to the offensive problems as much as Knapke's play.
The ground game was different in 2014 even thought the team featured the same three running backs as the year before. Travis Greene, who earned first-team All-MAC in 2013 on the strength of a 1,600+ yard season, failed to reach 1,000 yards rushing this year. Part of the reason for that was injuries that forced him to miss several games. He still managed to lead the team with 985 yards and 12 touchdowns. Babers' offense relies more on a running back-by-committee approach and back-ups Fred Coppet (785/6) and Andre Givens (495/8) made the most of their chances.
True freshman Roger Lewis had the breakout year among the wide receiving core. Lewis became the first freshman in Bowling Green history to go over 1,000 yards receiving in a season. Lewis finished with 1,093 yards on 73 receptions and seven touchdowns, two of which were game winners against Indiana and South Alabama in the bowl game. Ryan Burbrink (64), Ronnie Moore (56) and Gehrig Dieter (35) all had solid years in catches for the Falcons. However, you have to wonder why those numbers weren't higher for Moore and Dieter. Moore is such a weapon and the Falcons seemed to struggle to get him the ball at times during the year. Dieter, the highly touted transfer from SMU, really didn't seem to be a target in the offense until late in the year.
The offensive line was a solid unit all year despite breaking in two new starters. Redshirt sophomore Ben Steward and redshirt freshman Tim McAuliffe played well in their first season of game action. All-MAC performer Alex Huettel moved over to guard from his natural center position and never missed a beat. The entire unit returns intact for 2015.
Count the entire defense as another unit that was on a roller coaster ride throughout 2014. It all began with a terrible performance in the opener at Western Kentucky that saw them give up 40 first downs, 569 yards of total offense and 59 points. And things didn't get much better from there! After the first six games of the season, the Falcon defense was statistically one of the worst in college football with opponents averaging more than 40 points and 600 yards of total offense against them per game. Miraculously, the Falcons managed to come through that stretch of their schedule with a 3-3 record, thanks to the offense.
In the second half of the season, the defense made a comeback and actually won some games for the offense during the cold weather games in October and early-November. Part of the resurgence was due to getting senior linebackers D.J. Lynch and Gabe Martin, as well as senior defensive back Ryland Ward back from injuries. Martin led the Falcons in tackles with 115, while senior defensive back Brian Sutton was close behind with 104.
The defensive line got a surprise boost from true freshman Gus Schwieterman who was forced into duty in part due to the health of senior Zach Colvin. Colvin was lost the entire year due to illness. Schwieterman started 13 games and recorded 55 tackles, including 27 tackles for loss and two sacks. Seniors Charlie Walker, Bryan Thomas and Kendall Montgomery all anchored the line in 2014 and will be missed next year.
The defensive backfield was the where most of the question marks were as the season started, with Ward the only returning starter. A pair of true freshman were the story of the defense in 2014 as Clint Stephens and Nick Johnson stepped in and had very productive years despite their inexperience. Johnson led the team with five interceptions and Stephens had four. The freshmen duo, along with freshman Schwiterman give the Falcons something to build on next year.
Junior Tyler Tate was his reliable self, connecting on 23-of-29 field goals on the year, with a long of 52 yards. Tate was named a first-team Academic All-American after the season. True freshman punter, Joe Davidson averaged 42.6 yards per kick, including a booming 78-yarder.
Burbrink was again stellar as a punt returner, including taking one back 76 yards for a touchdown. Stephens also had a good year returning kick-offs, including a 96-yard touchdown against Ball State.
So half the fan base was disappointed with the 2014 results, especially after the fifth consecutive loss to arch rival Toledo, and that 51-17 black eye they received in the MAC championship game thanks to Northern Illinois. If Knapke and Lewis hadn't connected on that late, long touchdown pass in the Camellia Bowl, the off-season grumbling would be even louder now.
The bar was set very high for Babers in his first year in Bowling Green and some folks weren't happy with his new offense, especially when it struggled down the stretch. Those folks are taking a wait-and-see attitude to #FalconFast.
The other half of the fans are optimistic when looking at what this team accomplished in 2014. After all, they beat a Big Ten team, won the MAC east division, got back to the conference championship game, and won a bowl game. Not bad for a team that struggled with significant injuries all year. And, I am sure plenty of fans would have taken that on August 30 when they learned Johnson was gone for the year!
There is no doubt that the Falcons suffered through some growing pains in Babers' first year. Some of those were uncontrollable and others were self-inflicted. Before the season stated, Babers admitted that the team would not start to "fully get" his offensive system until sometime in 2015. Even with its struggles this year, the Falcon offense had flashes of brilliance. If Babers is right and the players get their heads around the offense totally next year, look out! The Falcons basically return all 11 offensive starters next year. Add in the return of Johnson and Gallon from injury and Baylor transfer Robbie Rhodes at wide receiver and this team has the potential to be very good offensively.
The big question next year will be the health of Johnson. He is currently off crutches and on-schedule to participate at some level in spring ball. It will be interesting to see what a healthy Johnson can do in this offense. If Johnson can't go, the Falcons can always go back to Knapke, who now has a year of experience in this offense. Either way, the Falcons seem to have a great option at quarterback next year.
The defense will likely hold Bowling Green's fate in 2015. It will be a very young unit, with only four starters coming back. Babers has been focusing heavily on defense in his recruiting efforts, with 11 of 14 current commits for 2015 on that side of the ball. But as said earlier, the return of freshman Johnson, Stephens, and Swieterman create a nice nucleus to build from. However, it's most likely, the Falcons will have to outscore opponents again in 2014.
The Falcons will likely be the favorites in the MAC east again next year, but the real test will come when they face-off against the teams from the West, since they were 0-4 against those opponents last year.