BOWLING GREEN - You can change the uniforms, repaint the locker room, hire a new coach and put up some bright lights, but it is ultimately the numbers that tell the real story. A football program has changed when the cold, hard numbers say it has changed.
Three games into the season, the numbers pinpoint a dramatic turnaround at Bowling Green State University. The Falcons are 3-0, a complete reversal from last year's 0-3 beginning.
But the win/loss record is a tip-of-the-iceberg kind of number for Bowling Green. The Falcons have basically erased their statistical performance from a year ago, when they finished 2-9, and have done so with essentially the same players.
“There's been a really big difference in everything, both on and off the field,'' senior wide receiver David Bautista said. “It's great that we're doing so well, but it's not just the number of wins and the stats that are different. If people knew how much this program has changed, from top to bottom, they would understand why we've made such a big improvement.''
A year ago the Falcons could not move the ball on the ground - period. They were close to last in the Mid-American Conference in almost every rushing-related statistic.
That translated into a forced and desperate passing attack, and with defenses now coming after them at breakneck speed, BG quarterbacks were sacked 12 times in the first three games last year, amounting to almost 100 yards in losses.
“It was really frustrating, because we couldn't run the ball and everybody knew it, so the pass rush was incredible,'' Bowling Green center Jon Mazur said. “This year the offensive line was determined to change that - no matter how much work it took. We were frustrated and embarrassed last year, and that has translated into a lot of determination to do things right this season.''
The Falcons, as they prepare for a showdown with MAC defending champion Marshall tomorrow, are averaging 144 rushing yards per game, a big leap from the 39.7 yards per game they had through three games a year ago.
First-year coach Urban Meyer credits a strong off-season, and sound work by his assistant coaches.
“We've asked a lot of these kids from the day I first met with them, and the ones who have stayed have worked hard to make themselves better football players,'' Meyer said. “But we couldn't be where we are without great assistant coaches, and our strength-and-conditioning coach Aaron Hillmann has done a great job through the off-season getting them ready, and our offensive-line coaches Greg Studrawa and John Hevesy have turned them into one of the strengths on this team.''
The Falcons have scored 97 points in wins over Missouri, Temple and Buffalo, a significant jump over the 37 points they mustered in the first three games last season. They have fewer passing yards than a year ago at this time, despite going to a single-back offense that is more wide open and spreads the field. The results show in the bottom-line number - total offense is up significantly.
“We seem to be more patient and much more confident on offense this year,'' Bautista said. “Last year there was a feeling of panic when things did not work out right away, but now we adjust, make some minor changes, and find a way to get down the field.
“We're probably passing less, but getting more out of our passing game.''
Meyer said offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon, who coached the past eight seasons at Colorado and Northwestern, has maintained a steady hand on the play-calling for the Falcons.
“Coach Brandon has done a superb job of formulating a game plan each week, then fine-tuning and adjusting that game plan as the game progresses,'' Meyer said. “Teams have tried to take away certain aspects of our offense, and challenge us in other areas, and he has used our personnel and the playbook to work things in our advantage each time.''
The defense also has been much improved and has the Falcons leading the MAC in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense.
BG has the league's best turnover margin at plus-2 per game, and leads the conference in kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, and is second in punt returns.
“With just a few exceptions, this is the same team we had last year,'' Bautista said. “But we are winning because everyone's approach to football has changed. The commitment is 100 percent, and the confidence level has never been higher.
“Frame of mind is so important in sports, and we go into a game now expecting to succeed. We honestly believe we've improved in every aspect of the game.''