Over the last few days weâ€™ve slipped in to enemy territory to the south, looking both Illinois and Northwestern post-spring. Well, itâ€™s time to venture in to the non-conference schedule but stick to the Big Ten footprint.
Up today is our look at the Bowling Green Falcons, who surprised everyone by winning the MAC championship by dominating previously unbeaten Northern Illinois. That win allowed the country to wake up to a name most Badger fans are familiar with thanks to Wisconsinâ€™s own coaching search in 2012 â€” Dave Clawson.
So, as we take a look at the 2014 version of BGSU, there is no Clawson on the sidelines to worry about. He was hired away by Wake Forest after his first 10-win season since 2002 at Fordham. Replacing him is Dino Barbers, formerly of Eastern Illinois.
With a new regime in town, the 2014 spring football practices took on a new tone. Letâ€™s find out what weâ€™ve learned about the direction of Bowling Green under Barbers leadership.
Defense, defense, defense. When Clawson left for Wake Forest, he didnâ€™t leave the cupboard bare on that side of the ball at all. Five starters from a defense that ranked fifth in scoring defense (15.9), 47th in rushing defense (150.57), sixth in passing defense (170.9) andÂ 10th in total defense (321.4) nationallyÂ return for their senior seasons. Based on last seasonâ€™s two-deep, the Falcons are looking at the vast majority (if not all) of their starters being upperclassmen.
Thatâ€™s a scary place to start when you are also looking at a team that wants to play uptempo, Baylor-like, offense. In fact, it may be the thing that helps the offense more than anything else. The more reps the offense gets, the more comfortable the transition will be.
Bowling Green is great on the edge, featuring two senior outside linebackers in D.J. Lynch and Gabe Martin who were 2nd team All-MAC picks last year. They will get help from a front four that has two senior ends in Bryan Thomas and Charlie Walker. Itâ€™s a group that wonâ€™t be afraid to be aggressive, with the foursome combining for six sacks and 20 tackles for loss.
There arenâ€™t a lot of weaknesses on a team that returns a ton of talent at all the skill positions, especially for the MAC. So, when looking at the spring, the biggest weakness was that this offense has gone through a massive culture shock.
It means that All-MAC quarterback Matt Johnson needs to not only learn a new offense, but get comfortable in what is going on in the offense too. Thatâ€™s the key to the offense Barber wants to run, telling Martin Rickman of Sports Illustrated the following:
Quarterback is everything. Donâ€™t get it twisted. The quarterback is everything. Like stock car racing. You need a driver. You can have the best car but if you donâ€™t have a driver, youâ€™re not going to win. After that you need mechanics, engineers, the pit crew, you need everything else. But you do need a driver, and the driver is the quarterback.
Now, Johnson, who put up over 3,400 yards and threw 25 touchdowns to seven interceptions, while completing 64.5 percent of his passes is clearly an asset to this transition. Yet, going from a grind it out style to playing at the speed of light isnâ€™t going to be the easiest thing in the world in one year.
Spring showed he could be capable of alleviating all doubts quickly though, goingÂ 20-of-29 for 221 yards with two touchdowns. Hopefully by now you get the point â€” if there are weaknesses on this team they are few and far between.
Biggest question mark:
Barbers turned Eastern Illinois into an FCS power during his few years at the helm, leading them to a 12-2 record this past season. He did it with an uptempo offense as well, averaged 48.2 points and 87 plays per game in 2013.
That hasnâ€™t really been Bowling Greenâ€™s modus operandi. After all, the Falcons did end last seasonÂ fourth in the countryÂ in time of possession (33:56). To put that in perspective, the Badgers were sixth nationally last season.
It means there is a clash of styles happening for the Falcons, and we really have no idea just what Bowling Green will be like on the offensive side of the ball. Early returns suggest there is enough returning talent to make the transition work, but just how long will it take for this group to look more like Baylor and less like Wisconsin on offense?
What it all means:Â
Bowling Green is clearly going through a transition year, and there are more questions than answers at this point. However, the one thing that isnâ€™t likely to change is the fact that the Falcons will be solid on defense and very talented on offense. Thatâ€™s usually a formula for winning, and if they stay solid on defense under new coordinator Kim McCloud, this could be a very tricky game for the Badgers.
Few team in the country run what the Falcons will throw at the Badgers and that can always make a matchup difficult. Wisconsinâ€™s biggest advantage may be in the athletic ability and depth advantage that exists in their favor. Spring and the new outlook at BGSU tells us this is a game UW fans canâ€™t sleep on, even if it is at home.