What a difference a week can make. Roughly seven days ago, the Bowling Green Falcons were the toast of the Mid-American Conference as the heavy favorites to repeat as champions. They were a seven-and-a-half point favorite in their opener at Western Kentucky, and they were bringing back six starters from the MAC's best defense last year. The offense was loaded with playmakers, including a preseason All-MAC quarterback.
The Falcons head into this week's home opener against the VMI Keydets facing a lot more questions than they currently have answers for. Western Kentucky manhandled the Falcons defense in a surprisingly easy 59-31 victory last week. The Hilltoppers rang up 40 first downs and 702 yards of total offense on the Falcon defense, while converting on 14 of 18 third down situations. And the game wasn't as close as the final score may suggest.
In his postgame press conference, head coach Dino Babers said his team's tackling was a major factor in the loss. "You got to be able to tackle in space and we didn't," said Babers. "That is the biggest fear for any coach heading into the first game because it's so hard to replicate game speed in practice."
The Falcons defensive secondary was exposed by the Hilltoppers as their receivers ran uncovered throughout the game and then added plenty of yards after the catch. Hilltopper quarterback Brandon Doughty threw for 569 yards and six touchdowns in the game. The Falcon defense actually did a decent job against the run allowing just 133 yards on 41 carries but it hardly mattered because the Hilltoppers were able to do anything they wanted in the passing game.
The Falcons will be facing another hot quarterback when the Keydets enter Doyt Perry Stadium this coming Saturday. Redshirt freshman Al Cobb was named the Keydets' starter the week leading up to their opener at Bucknell and promptly threw for 308 yards and four touchdowns, and ran for another. Bucknell won the game 42-38, taking the lead in the fourth quarter on a punt return touchdown.
The loss however, did not diminish a strong opening by Cobb and the Keydets offense that produced 28 first downs and 421 yards of total offense. Cobb certainly spread the ball around as his four touchdowns went to four different receivers, including Doug Burton who had 109 yards receiving on seven catches. Running back Deon Watts rushed for 98 yards in 22 carries to lead the VMI ground game.
So can the Falcons defense right the ship and keep their offense from having to outscore VMI in this one? That's the biggest question facing the defending MAC champs right now. In addition to poor tackling, it also looked like the defensive players for Bowling Green were struggling to adjust to a different system under Babers and new defensive coordinator, Kim McCloud.
Last year under former head coach Dave Clawson, the Falcons played an aggressive style of defense that included pressuring the quarterback and one-on-one coverage by the secondary. Against the Hilltoppers, the Falcons defense seem to be on their heels from the get go, playing zone coverage and doing very little blitzing. It will be interesting to see if that will change in this game as well as the emphasis on better tackling technique.
The Bowling Green offense finally got rolling in the opener after experiencing some bumps in the road early. Dropped passes (one for a touchdown), an ill-conceived fourth down play and a missed 27-yard field goal kept the Falcons off the scoreboard the entire first quarter and half of the second quarter. The Falcons put together back-to-back long drives that resulted in a touchdown and a field goal late in the second quarter but still found themselves down 31-10 at the half. The Falcons found the end zone three more times in the second half but it wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the Hilltoppers' offense.
Quarterback Matt Johnson ended up with a respectable day in the stat book going 25 of 36 for 314 yards and touchdown. New Falcon wide receivers Roger Lewis (freshman) and Dieter Gehrig (transfer) showed flashes of their potential in this offense as they led the Falcons with 78 yards in receiving each. Sophomore Ronnie Moore showed his explosiveness, taking a short pass and running 41 yards through the defense for a touchdown. The Falcons running back trio of Travis Green (91 yards) , Fred Coppet and Andre Givens all found the end zone in the opener.
The shocking news out of Bowling Green this week was that Johnson would be lost for the rest of the season due to a hip injury. Sophomore James Knapke has been named the starter for this week and will undoubtedly be learning on the fly. However, with the amount and quality of playmakers on the roster, the Falcons offense could still be one of the best in the MAC this year if they get decent quarterback play. Some growing pains in Babers' new offense were anticipated and a much better performance is expected against VMI. The Keydets return seven starters on defense from last year and still surrendered 42 points and 465 yards of total offense to Bucknell in their opener. Look for the Falcons to come out firing in this one on offense. Against Western Kentucky, the first few series on offense for the Falcons seemed tightly scripted and didn't show much creativity in the play calling. I don't think that will happen against VMI. Look for Knapke to be in the shot gun early with an empty backfield. That's probably what should have happened against the Hilltoppers as passing would later successfully set up the run for the Falcons in the game. I don't think Babers will make that mistake again this season.
Special teams could very well play a part of this game against VMI. The Keydets already were victimized by their punt return coverage in the opener. Bowling Green's Ryan Burbrink narrowly missed returning a punt for a touchdown against the Hilltoppers, tripping over his own feet at midfield with nothing between him and the end zone. Falcons' place kickerTyler Tate had an up and down game. He missed badly on a 27-yard attempt in the second quarter that looked like it may have been affected by a bad snap or hold. Later in the same period, Tate nailed a 52-yard field goal to make amends. Freshman punter Joe Davidson had a nice first game for the Falcons averaging 43 yards on four punts.
So what can we expect from this game? If the Falcons ever needed to make a statement and gain some much needed confidence it's in this game. They have Big 10 foes Indiana and Wisconsin coming up and most likely are starring at an 0-4 start if they lose this one. I expect the offense to roll in this one since the Keydets could not slow down Bucknell last week. The bigger question will be on the defensive side of the ball for the Falcons. The VMI coaches, like those of all their upcoming opponents, will pour over the tape of the BG/WKU game.
Babers, in his initial season with the Falcons, has his first challenge on his hands in correcting the defensive mistakes from week one. "Football teams grow more between their first and second games than any others," said Babers. "It's going to be a rough week of practice."
Babers had no idea just how rough the week would end up being!