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Defending Champs Start MAC Play: Will the Real Bowling Green Falcons Please Stand Up?

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The defending champs are 2-2 heading into MAC play but how they got there has raised a lot of questions about their chances to repeat.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Bowling Green Falcons are the defending champions of the Mid-American Conference.  They open MAC league play this weekend with a road game against the Massachusetts Minutemen.   The Falcons are currently 2-2 on the year but what do we really know about this team at this point?

Well we know a lot has changed for the Falcons since they handily defeated the Northern Illinois Huskies and Heisman Trophy candidate Jordan Lynch in the MAC Championship game in Detroit last December, 47-27.  Since that game, the Falcons have played five football games.  They lost to Pittsburgh in last year's Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (30-27), they were blown out in this year opener at Western Kentucky (59-31), and last week got totally dominated at Wisconsin (68-17).  Their wins this year have come at home against FCS division opponent VMI (48-7), and a rousing last-second upset (45-42) of the Big Ten Conference's Indiana Hoosiers.

Head coach Dino Babers has replaced Dave Clawson (Wake Forest) and brought in his up-tempo style of offense that he learned at the feet of his mentor, Art Briles at Baylor.  Babers and his offense, nicknamed FalconFast, were expected to have All-MAC quarterback Matt Johnson running the show.  However, Johnson was injured late in the Western Kentucky game and will be lost for the year.  This news came on the heels of the announcement at the start of fall camp that talented starting wide receiver Chris Gallon would undergo knee surgery and also be out for the year.

Despite these injuries, through the first four games the Falcons have shown they still have enough playmakers to effectively run Babers new offense.  Sophomore James Knapke has taken over at quarterback and his performance against Indiana is proof that he can run this offense.  The Falcons are deep at running back with Travis Greene, Fred Coppet and Andre Givens being as talented a group as you will find in the MAC.

Freshman Roger Lewis has emerged as the undisputed leader of the Bowling Green wide receiving core.  Lewis currently has team highs of 30 catches for 366 yards and two touchdowns on the year.  Others in the unit are fighting some bumps and bruises as well.  Speedster Ronnie Moore suffered an ankle injury against Indiana and continues to play through it but hasn't been his usual self.  When healthy, Moore is a threat to score from anywhere on the field.  SMU transfer Gehrig Dieter has struggled to get targets so far this year and then tweaked his knee in the second half against Indiana.  Dieter did not play at Wisconsin and his status and that of Moore is unclear for the UMass game.

The bottom line is the Falcon offense should be able to roll against MAC teams the rest of the year.  They will threaten to run triple digit number of plays in games just as they did against the Hoosiers (113).  They will score points in bunches but they will also feel the pressure of having to outscore the better teams left on the schedule.

Then there is the defense!  Well, calling it a defense is being kind.  Through the first four games this year, the numbers the Bowling Green defense have put up are atrocious.  Teams are averaging 44 points a game and more than 600 yards of total offense against the Falcons, making them the worst defense currently in college football.

The Falcons welcomed back six starters from last year's unit that was the best in the MAC.  So what has changed?  First, you have a new defensive scheme from an all most completely different defensive staff.  While Clawson had built a defense base on an attacking style that challenged everything and created turnovers, Babers' defensive approach seems to be just the opposite.  His defense seems content on keeping things in front of them and not giving up the home run.  The goal is to get off the field and give the ball back to the offense so they can do their thing.  That hasn't exactly worked so far!

Secondly, three of the starters missing from last year's defense were all in the defensive backfield.  Those guys were playmakers who created turnovers and were sure tacklers.  The guys replacing them this year so far haven't shown the same ability.    The games against Western Kentucky and Indiana have exposed the Falcons weakness against the pass.  Wisconsin had so much success running the ball that they only attempted 18 passes and completed nine.  The Badgers showed just how bad the Falcons have been at tackling.

Lastly, the Falcons have been hit with some key injuries on defense.  Starting lineman Zach Colvin has missed the last two games with an illness and his return is unclear.  The same goes from All-MAC performers, linebacker D.J. Lynch and defensive back Ryland Ward.  Lynch has missed the last two games with a knee injury and Ward missed the Wisconsin game with a wrist injury.  The status for both against UMass is not known but they will be desperately needed if the Falcons are to defend their MAC title.

The Falcons can't be this bad on defense can they?  They should find the offenses in the MAC a tad slower and smaller than what they have faced so far this year.  Having said that, nobody would be surprised if a team lights them up again, especially one of their cross-division opponents (Toledo and Western Michigan).  Babers' up-tempo offense also doesn't do his defense any favors.  If the BG offense isn't winning on third down and putting sustained drives together, that puts their defense on the field for a lot of plays.  That can wear a defense down quickly and expose a lack of depth at positions.

The special teams have been a bright spot so far this season for the Falcons.  Junior kicker Tyler Tate is having a fantastic season and his four field goals won the Indiana game.  Freshman punter Joe Davidson has been outstanding and was named the MAC East Special Teams Player of the Week last week.   All-MAC return man Ryan Burbrink already has as punt return touchdown this season and would have had another if he hadn't tripped over his own feet with nothing between him and the goal line in the opener.

The Falcons head into MAC play against UMass with plenty of questions.  Will their offense be able to outscore opponents consistently?  Will their defense revert to anywhere near to last year's standards?  Do the Falcons have enough to take a weak east division?  The answers to these and other questions will begin to be answered on Saturday in Amherst, Massachusetts.  Stay tuned!