Dec 26, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers tight end Manasseh Garner (82) is upended by Bowling Green Falcons defensive back Ryland Ward (15) during the second quarter of the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Can Dino Babers keep the Bowling Green Falcons flying high?


Dec 26, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (40) runs the ball against the Bowling Green Falcons during the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Curse of the MAC strikes again! After a couple of ho-hum seasons as he built the Falcons into the team he wanted, head coach Dave Clawson led BGSU to an 8-5 record in 2012, and then a MAC-winning 10-4 season last year. While this was great for the school, as is often the case, success in the MAC can lead to coaches receiving offers from bigger schools after a short period of time, and when Wake Forest came calling, Clawson jumped at the opportunity. Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Falcons – they have plenty of talent back from last season, and they invoked something known as “The Curse of the FCS” when they signed Dino Babers away from Eastern Illinois, whom he led to 2 playoff appearances in just 2 years. Can Babers translate his FCS success to the MAC?

 

Offense

Oct 12, 2013; Starkville, MS, USA; Bowling Green Falcons quarterback Matt Johnson (11) hands the ball off to running back Travis Greene (13) during the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. The Bulldogs defeated the Falcons 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The Falcons stepped into the future when they pulled incumbent Matt Schilz 4 passes into the 2013 season and replaced him with Matt Johnson. The sophomore proved the coaching staff right with a strong first season at the helm, passing for 3467 yards and 25 TDs, with just 7 interceptions. He showed some running ability too, adding 238 yards and 5 TDs on the ground, and that figure could have been higher if not for his penchant for taking off instead of waiting for a passing play to develop, a penchant that led to 41 sacks. Johnson had a decent bunch of receivers to throw to. Shaun Joplin (54-908-3) and tight end Alex Bayer (37-593-4) were a reliable pair of targets, while freshman Ronnie Moore provided the big plays with 28 receptions for 547 yards and 7 TDs. There was some concern about the running game going into the 2013 season due to Anthon Samuel transferring, but Travis Greene, who had 1 career carry, tore up the MAC en route to 1594 yards and 11 TDs. A strong offensive line, led by all-MAC picks Dominic Flewellyn and Chief Kekuewa, paved the way for the outstanding running attack.

Baber’s EIU teams were renowned for their offense, and Baber is responsible for unleashing rising star Jimmy Garoppolo upon the FCS, and soon the NFL. Now he has another nice couple of pieces to play with, not least of which is Johnson. Baber will need to temper Johnson’s willingness to take off, but there is plenty to like. Who he will throw to may be another matter. Joplin and Bayer have run out of eligibility, depriving Johnson of his favorite targets, but it would be a surprise if Moore didn’t take a big step forward this season. Ryan Burbrink and Heath Jackson combined for 62 receptions last season, and should also be ready for some extra work, while incoming freshmen Clint Stephens and Roger Lewis could have an early impact. Lewis in particular brings size and strength to the position. Incoming JUCO Brock Hinkel will battle returning vet Chris Pohlman (4-88-1) for the vacant tight end spot. Even if the passing attack takes time to get in sync, the Falcons can rely on the running attack, which boasts a strong cast of characters. Greene is the obvious star, but any of Andre Givens (45-255-3), William Houston (49-211-11), and so forth, can contribute. The offensive line loses its top 2 in Flewellyn and Kekuewa, but they should be in good shape. Right guard Alex Huettel also made the all-MAC teams, while freshman Jacob Bennett did a solid job at left tackle after taking over for Fahn Cooper, who transferred to junior college.

 

Defense

In 2012, the Falcons defense was great, holding opponents to fewer than 300 yards and 17 points per game. Last season, with 9 starters back, the defense was tough again, although they had some struggles against the run with the loss of Chris Jones to graduation, but they still allowed fewer than 16 points per game. The defensive line, which was relatively undersized already, suffered through some injuries, which hampered the run defense. Tackle Ted Ouellet missed a couple of games, but was the team’s best pass rusher with 6.5 sacks, and tied for the lead with 8 tackles for loss. Bryan Thomas did a good job getting after the passer, but only had 1 sack. He did make 7 of his 37 tackles in opposing backfields though. The linebackers were a solid group, and both DJ Lynch and Gabe Martin received all-conference recognition, despite Martin missing half the season due to injury. Lynch led the team with 85 tackles, 8 for loss, while Martin had 36 tackles, 3.5 for loss. The secondary was gutted by Indiana, but was rock solid otherwise, allowing just 171 yards per game. All-MAC pick, strong safety Jerry “BooBoo” Gates, was the star, making 71 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and had a couple of interceptions. Free safety Ryland Ward was second on the team with 81 tackles, and also had 2 interceptions, and was a good last line of defense. Cameron Truss and Aaron Foster formed one of the better corner tandems in the conference.

The defense certainly had its issues last season, but it was still heavy sledding for opponents to navigate. In 2014, they’ll have to rebuild with the loss of some key components from the last couple of seasons. Ouellet and his tackle mate Jairus Campbell are both moving on, and Ouellet’s pass rush skills will be missed. Zach Colvin played well last season as a reserve and part-time starter, making 24 tackles with 5.5 for loss, and should take one spot. Size could be an issue at the other spot. Mike Minns is a fireplug type at 5’10, 293 pounds, but most of the other options are on the wrong side of 275. They are quick though. Thomas and Charlie Walker are back at end, but a better pass rusher needs to be found. Martin and Lynch return at outside linebacker, which is great news, but middle linebacker Paul Swan needs to be replaced. There are a bunch of redshirt freshmen ready to step in and take his place, but only Aaron Banks has close to ideal size for the middle. The apparent clearout in the secondary is less of a concern than it may seem, despite the loss of 3 starters. The omnipotent Gates is a huge loss, but Ward is back to help keep things together at the back. Jude Adjei-Barimah isn’t as big or athletic as Gates, but he was versatile enough to start at nickel and outside linebacker. He is a likely replacement for Gates, but keep an eye on incoming freshman Nilijah Ballew, who is a 4-star recruit according to some scouting organizations. Brian Sutton started 3 games at the rover spot, and could be in the mix. The return of Darrell Hunter II from injury will help out the corner situation, while Will Watson flashed some playmaking ability as a reserve.

 

Special Teams

After splitting the kicking chores in 2012, Tyler Tate took over full-time last season and had a fine year, hitting 18 of 22 field goals, including a 52-yard kick against Northern Illinois. Punter Brian Schmiedebusch has been a key part of the defensive effort the last 3 seasons, and only had 12 punts returned this season. Moore could have been a better kick returner, especially compared to Gates’ sterling efforts when he took over. Burbrink scored on a 67-yard punt return, but was otherwise unimpressive. The coverage units were good.

Tate is back at kicker, but Schmiedebusch has graduated, which is a huge loss. Joe Davidson is the only scholarship “punter” on the roster, but kickoff specialist Anthony Farinella or Nick Fields could take the job. Gates will be missed on kick returns, but there are plenty of guys on the roster who could potentially make an impact here. Finding an adequate punter could make a big difference this season.

 

Prediction

The Falcons have a few questions to answer, but on initial glance, they look to be well-placed for an East division run again. On offense, the loss of their 2 best linemen and receivers would seem problematic, but while the reserves are a little green (more so on the line), they certainly don’t lack talent. Babers has plenty to work with here. The defense is a bigger concern, with the loss of 6 starters, including most of the secondary.  The unit will likely revolve around the linebackers, but the line has to manufacture a pass rush, and it will increase the pressure on the young secondary if the linebackers need to blitz more. Babers is talking over a better team than he did at EIU, but can he make the adjustment to the higher level? The smart money says yes, and with other conference teams suffering some key losses, another 10-win season could be on the cards.

 

Tags: Bowling Green Falcons Dino Babers MAC Football Matt Johnson Ryland Ward Travis Greene

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