What a difference a year makes!
This time last fall, the Bowling Green Falcon football team was considered a contender for a MAC East title along with Ohio University and Kent State. The Falcons were returning a ton of players on the defensive side of the ball but weren't so settled on the offensive side.
Their senior quarterback (Matt Schilz) who had been the starter the last three years had apparently fought off a challenge for his starting job from a young player that had only 28 career pass attempts on his resume. Their All-MAC running back (Anthon Samuel) had left the team and decided to transfer to Florida International to be closer to his home. His apparent replacement was a converted wide receiver that had never played at that position in college.
Head coach Dave Clawson, who was in the fifth year of his five-year plan to win a MAC championship, said "trust me" when he replaced Schilz with redshirt sophomore Matt Johnson late in the first quarter of their opening game of the season. Clawson's faith in Johnson and running back Travis Greene, coupled with the league's best defense, was rewarded with Bowling Green's first MAC Championship in 22 years.
The Falcons head into the 2014 season as the clear favorite to repeat as MAC champions. Johnson and Greene have been named preseason first team All-MAC at their respective positions and have been named to the watch list of several national awards. And oh by the way, Clawson is now the head coach at Wake Forest and a guy named Dino Babers is now leading the Falcons program.
Babers comes to Bowling Green after two very successful seasons as head coach at Eastern Illinois University. Last season, he led EIU to a 12-2 record, a No. 2 national ranking, and a quarterfinal appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Panthers outscored their opponents last year 675-319.
Babers arrives at Bowling Green as a hot young commodity in the coaching ranks and with the reputation as a offensive innovator. Under Babers guidance, Panthers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo won the Walter Peyton Award (the FCS equivalent of the Heisman) and was a second round pick of the New England Patriots. Prior to Eastern Illinois, Babers spent four seasons at Baylor working for his professed mentor, head coach Art Briles. He learned the intricacies of Briles' offense while coaching future NFL players Robert Griffith III, Kendall Wright and Josh Gordon.
The Falcons return a lot of talent on offense this year and the only question is how long will it take for the players to adapt to the up-tempo style of offense their new coach prefers. Babers says the goal of the offense is to run a play very 15 to 20 seconds. That's fast. If the Falcons get this new offense down quickly, it could spell trouble for their opponents.
Lets start with the defense because for all the flash and dash of last year's offense it was the defense that propelled the Falcons to their first MAC championship since 1992. Last year's defense led the MAC in both scoring defense and team defense. League opponents averaged only 15.9 points per game against the Falcons last season. That was almost 10 points less per game than the next MAC team, Buffalo. The number one goal for this year's defense according to the coaches is to get off the field and give the ball back to the offense.
The Falcons return six starters from last year's unit and have enough veteran leadership to ensure that they'll be among the league's best again this year. The heart of the Falcon defense is at linebacker where All-MAC performers Gabe Martin and D.J. Lynch return. The starting middle linebacker position will be decided between senior Paul Senn and redshirt freshman Nate Locke. Senn is an experienced special teams player that also had 37 tackles last season at linebacker. However it was Locke that was penciled in as the starter as fall camp got underway.
The defensive line is an experienced and talent group that sees a lot of rotation during games so starting doesn't mean as much here. Seniors Bryan Thomas, Zack Colvin and Charlie Walker are the expected starters along with redshirt junior Taylor Roster. Senior Kendall Montgomery and redshirt junior Bryan Baird will also figure heavily into the rotation on the line, as well as redshirt sophomores Izaah Lunsford and Jhalil Croley.
The defensive backfield is where the Falcons must fill the most holes. Senior Ryland Ward is the lone holdover from a very good unit last year. Ward was recently named to the Jim Thorpe Award 2014 watch list and started all 14 games at free safety finishing second on the team in tackles with 81 and tied for the most interceptions. Joining Ward as starters will most likely be redshirt senior Jude Adjei-Barimah, senior Brian Sutton and redshirt junior Darrell Hunter II. All three players have seen plenty of playing time in the past on special teams and in nickel packages.
Coach Babers wants to play fast and the Falcons certainly seem to have the skill players on offense to do it. But like with any new offense, there is a learning curve. Will the Falcons adapt to the new offense or will last year's high powered unit struggle to play this fast? If they do adapt, will they do so quickly enough to compete with non-conference foes Indiana and Wisconsin early on the schedule? Only time will tell.
Johnson is the clear leader of the new offense and he could explode in it. He'll work almost predominantly from the shot gun this year and could put up video game-like numbers with all those offensive plays expected. Last year, Johnson threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns while rushing for another five. He completed almost 65% of his passes and capped his season with a career high 393 yard, five touchdown performance in the MAC Championship. Johnson has been named to the 2014 watch lists of the Walter Camp Award, The Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, and the Maxell Award.
Greene took the starting running back position last year and ran with it...literally! Greene isn't blessed with overpowering size (5 foot 10, 183 pounds) or speed. But what he does have is an uncanny ability to make people miss as a result of great vision. Last year, Greene broke a 63-year old BGSU school record by rushing for 1,594 yards on the season. He also had 11 rushing touchdowns and added another five receiving. The Falcons are deep in the backfield with sophomore Fred Coppet and redshirt junior Andre Givens backing up Greene.
The Falcons receiving unit is deep and talented as well despite losing standout junior Chris Gallon for all of 2014 after he suffered a knee injury during an offseason workout. Senior Heath Jackson and redshirt junior Ryan Burbrink are both sure-handed types that could thrive with all the quick passing expected in the new offense. Last year's freshman sensation Ronnie Moore will step-up to a starting position this year. Moore was brought along slowly by the coaching staff last year and exploded in the MAC Championship game with 177 all-purpose yards and a touchdown. The final starter expected in the Falcon's four-receiver set is Southern Methodists transfer Gehrig Dieter. Dieter will have three more years of eligibility with the team and has the size (6 foot 2, 216 lbs) and speed to create a formable outside duo with Moore.
The offensive line is where BGSU has the most question marks on offense. The Falcons will have to replace both starting guards from last year's unit. The other challenge will be having the linemen keep up with the skill players in playing fast in Babers' new offense.
Anchoring the line will be redshirt junior and All-MAC performer Alex Huettel. Huettel, who played guard last year and moves over to center, was recently named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List for 2014. He's joined in the starting line-up by two returning redshirt sophomores that started all 14 games for the Falcons last year at the tackles, Logan Dietz and Jacob Bennett. The first depth chart of preseason had redshirt sophomore Ben Steward and redshirt freshman Ryan Hunter as the starting guards. If the offensive line can keep up and keep their quarterback upright, the Falcon offense could be in for another big year in 2014.
After being a weak link for the Falcons in years past, last year's special teams unit was one of the league's best. Returning is redshirt junior placekicker Tyler Tate who connected on 18 of 22 field goal attempts last year and finished with 113 points, sixth most in school history for a single season. Redshirt freshman Joe Davidson will take over the punting duties and his 6 foot 7 frame should help him launch kicks. Burbrink was named preseason first team All-MAC as a punt returner and he'll team with the speedy Moore (kickoffs) to form a dangerous kick return unit for the Falcons.
The 2014 schedule for Bowling Green includes a rare home game against a Big Ten opponent. The Falcons welcome Indiana to Doyt Perry Stadium on September 13 as part of their home-and-home series with the Hoosiers. The following week, the Falcons will face another Big Ten challenge as they travel to Madison to face Wisconsin. The MAC schedule finds the Falcons facing east division challengers Ohio and Akron, as well as arch rival Toledo, all on the road.
|Date||Time (EST)||Opponent||TV Coverage|
|August 29 (Fri)||7:30 p.m.||at Western Kentucky||CBS Sports Network|
|September 6 (Sat)||3:30 p.m.||vs. VMI||ESPN3|
|September 13 (Sat)||12 p.m.||vs. Indiana||ESPNU/ESPNNEWS|
|September 20 (Sat)||TBA||at Wisconsin||TBA|
|September 27 (Sat)||3 p.m.||at UMASS||TBA|
|October 4 (Sat)||TBA||vs. Buffalo||TBA|
|October 11 (Sat)||2 p.m.||at Ohio||TBA|
|October 18 (Sat)||TBA||vs. Western Michigan||TBA|
|November 4 (Tue)||8 p.m.||at Akron||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|November 12 (Wed)||8 p.m.||vs. Kent State||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|November 19 (Wed)||8 p.m.||at Toledo||ESPN2/ESPNU|
|November 28 (Fri)||TBA||vs. Ball State||ESPNU/ESPN3|
Optimism abounds in coach Babers' first season at Bowling Green. Nearly every media poll and preseason pundit has the Falcons at least returning to Detroit for the MAC Championship game in December. Babers promises to bring a high flying offense to the MAC this year and he certainly seems to have the pieces in place to make it work. However, the new offense may be a bit bumpy in the beginning but the Falcons have the luxury of having the likes of Western Kentucky and VMI on the schedule early. The better tests will come next from the Big Ten Schools and I think the Falcons new offense will then hit the league portion of their schedule ready to roll.
If the line develops with its new starters, this offense could be downright scary with all the weapons the Falcons have on offense. The defense should be very solid again with enough holdovers from last year to show the new players the way. If the Falcons are able to compete with the Big Ten schools and maybe pull off an upset at home against the Hoosiers, a ten or eleven win season and a national ranking is entirely possible. A good test for the Falcons will be their November 19th game against their old rival Toledo. The Falcons have lost their last four games to the Rockets and that hasn't set well with the fan base.
The scary part for the MAC is that this Falcon team could be even better next year in 2015, as they are on track to return 10 of their 11 projected offensive starters from this year's team. The only problem for the Falcons could be holding on to Babers if they have the kind of success expected the next couple of years.
But, that's a problem any MAC school would sign-up for!