The Bowling Green Falcons were back at Ford Field for the Mid- Conference Championship Game (MACCG) today, where nearly everybody figured they would be when the season started. However the trip back to the Detroit featured several "recalculating" moments on the old GPS for the Falcons.
This year's rematch game against the Northern Illinois Huskies features the same teams in roughly name only. Bowling Green won't have head coach Dave Clawson, who moved on to take the Wake Forest job after last year's game. The Falcons will also be without star quarterback, and last year's MACCG MVP, Matt Johnson. Johnson, who threw for a record five touchdowns in last year's 47-27 Falcon win, injured his hip in the season opener and has been out the entire year. Also missing for Bowling Green will be BooBoo Gates, Paul Swan, Cameron Truss, Aaron Foster, Jarius Campbell and Ted Ouelett...all senior standouts on the MAC's top defense last year.
This is also not the same Huskie team from a year ago as well. Their head coach admitted as much in today's pre-game press conference. "Last year I was sitting up here with Jordan Lynch and Jimmy Ward," said Rod Carey. "It was different because those two had a lot more attention focused on them than we have on any of this year's players." Lynch finished third in last year's Heisman Trophy voting and Ward was an NFL first round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. So yeah, the Huskie are different this year too.
First year Falcon head coach Dino Babers was philosophical in today's press conference when talking about this year's team. "It's been a heck of a year. You talk about writing a story and what a story we have written," said Babers. "Some chapters have been smooth and some chapters have been rocky, but we are coming to the end of the book now and it's going to be exciting to see how we finish the read."
Is certainly wasn't hard to tell the smooth parts from the rocky parts that's for sure. It started very rocky in that opening 59-31 loss at Western Kentucky, and got much worse after the game when they learned Johnson was lost for the year. Another rocky part was how they ended the season, losing to arch rival Toledo (27-20) for the fifth straight time, and then to Ball State (41-24) at home on Senior Day.
The smooth included a 45-42 last second win against the Big Ten's Indiana Hoosiers, in a game that showcased Babers' up-tempo offensive at its best. The Falcons also went 5-0 against MAC east opponents and clinched the division title nearly a month ago with a win against Kent State.
The Falcons certainly have had their ups and downs on both sides of the ball this year. The defense was historically bad early in the season as they were giving up an average of 50 points per game through the first six games of the season. Amazingly, the Falcons went 4-2 through that stretch. The defense suffered some injuries and went several games without All-MAC linebackers Gabe Martin and D.J. Lynch. Once those players returned, the Falcons defense actually played very respectable down the stretch, with the exception of the season finale against Ball State. You could even say that the defense bailed the offense out at times and won some key games for them. True freshman defensive backs Clint Stephens and Nick Johnson, along with redshirt freshman defensive lineman Gus Schwieterman played well for young players and give the Falcons hope for the future.
The offense, which was thought to be in trouble when Johnson went out, actually flourished early under sophomore quarterback James Knapke. He was brilliant in the Indiana win, as well as in come-from-behind wins against UMass and Buffalo. However, he and the Falcon offense seemed to regress as the season went on. I am not sure if all of the offensive struggles are on Knapke. The weather in the late-season games was not exactly conducive to throwing the ball. Plus, it seemed the Falcon playbook shrunk and the play calling got conservative late in the year. I think the coaches were trying to protect Knapke from turnovers and let their potent running game and improving defense win games. That strategy seemed to work against weaker east division teams, but did not against the stronger west division opponents.
Babers indicated the Falcon passing game might hold the key to beating the Huskies tomorrow. "Us being able to throw the ball efficiently, something we haven't been able to do the last four five weeks consistently," said Babers. "If we can throw the ball efficiently consistently, we may have an opportunity to do some things in this game.
Babers was asked if he was concerned about going 0-3 this year against west division teams. "Do I think about being 0-3 against the west? I do. I don't think about it right now," said Babers. "But if you're going to win a game against them this would be the one to win. "
The Falcons will have to stop a stable of good running backs that Northern Illinois brings to this championship game. That's something the Falcons haven't been able to do well in the last two games, giving up 265 rushing to Toledo's Kareem Hunt and 165 to Ball State's Jahwan Edwards.
"They have a lot of good players on the offensive side of the ball and they run the ball really well," said linebacker Martin. "So obviously that's a concern to stop the run game. Every guy on the defense has to do their job and control their man." Babers took that a step farther saying, "They can run the football, and they are a good team. We've had trouble stopping teams that are extremely consisting in doing that. That is going to be something that's going to determine the outcome of the game."
At his press conference after the Ball State game, it was obvious that Babers was disappointed with his teams' effort and he said "we have a lot of things to fix this week and we'll get them fixed." When asked today if he thought they got things fixed this past week, Babers seemed to indicate the problems were more mental than anything physical.
"I have to be confident. I have faith in these young men there is no doubt. But, we still have to go out and show it. I would love to win the game, but that's not my major concern," said Babers. "My major concern is that we go out and play with the type of enthusiasm and effort the game deserves. It's a special game and you need to respect the game. If we go out and give the effort and play with the enthusiasm that the game demands, then I'll be OK with the outcome no matter what happens."
Babers indicated the Falcons had a very good week of practice this past week. Martin echoed that, saying, "The energy level and the focus level was tremendous this week. You could tell by the way the seniors handled it. It just trickled down to the whole team."
So the Falcons have given themselves a punchers chance in this MAC title game, something that wasn't lost on Babers. "No one thought Buster Douglas could throw the upper cut and knock out, but he threw it and it happened. So, we have a chance. We have an opportunity. So we are going to go out there and take our cuts and see what happens."
The first round in this title fight begins tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. in Ford Field. Bring your popcorn!