MOBILE, Ala. - Grading the Bowling Green State University's defensive unit might drive a college professor nuts.
The work submitted early on was typically sloppy, and those indiscretions were reflected in the midterm grade. But toward the end of the course the Falcons inexplicably began ripping through more challenging tests.
And now the resulting "C" might be misleading.
The general consensus is that the defense doesn't possess the skills to ace its next big test against Tulsa's wonderful offense. But the Falcons' recent body of work might suggest otherwise.
"Stats right now don't mean a darn thing to our guys," said defensive coordinator Mike Ward. "It's a one-game season, four quarters of football. We feel confident about the game plan and we just have to go out and execute."
The Falcons (8-4) executed well in mid November, beginning with a 31-17 win in New York against a respectable Buffalo team. That game could have been written off as an aberration except six days later the Falcons held the Mid-American Conference's top offense to just one touchdown in a 37-10 pounding of Toledo. The Rockets' 322 yards of offense were the fewest BG allowed in the regular season.
"Coach Ward challenged the defense before we went to Buffalo," Sean O'Drobinak said. "Then we had to turn around and do it again."
Sunday's test will be the toughest to date. Tulsa (9-4) leads the country in yards per game with 542 and only eight teams average more points than the Golden Hurricane's 39.4. So how does the MAC's eight-ranked defense expect to slow such a lethal offense?
"You have to make it a one-dimension game," Ward said. "We can't allow them to run the football. They're going to try to throw the ball, but we have to take away the run."
Ward is reasonable enough not to believe that the Falcons can continually disrupt quarterback Paul Smith, whose 4,753 passing yards are second most nationally. Instead, Ward wants to minimize the output of running back Tarrion Adams who has rushed for 1,113 yards on a team not overly concerned with its ground attack. That plan seems sensible considering Adams did not reach 100 yards in any of Tulsa's losses.
"I think stopping the run is definitely the key," cornerback Kenny Lewis said, adding that third-down stops and preventing long passes are also points of emphasis. "We just have to work hard as a team."
Two defensive starters will not play. Diyral Briggs, a first-team All-MAC selection, has been suspended for violating a team rule and freshman linebacker Glen Stanley was not at yesterday's practice and may not even be in Mobile.
Without Briggs, BG is missing its best pass rusher, which is unfortunate because Smith is prone to making mistakes when pressured. There is a strong correlation between Smith struggling and Tulsa losing. Eleven of Smith's 19 interceptions came in losses and his three lowest passer ratings also came in defeat. Likewise, 15 of the 27 sacks of Smith have come in Tulsa losses.
"They got in his face and hit him," BG coach Gregg Brandon said. "I think if you can do that you can have some success against them."
BG has been dabbling with packages that require five defensive backs, though Ward said the standard 4-3 will be used if the Falcons struggle to stop the run.
Lewis, whose nine pass breakups are most on the team, will spend time covering Tulsa's excellent freshman Trae Johnson. Johnson's 1,039 yards and 11 touchdown grabs are tops on the Golden Hurricane. Strangely enough, Tulsa's second-leading receiver is a fullback. Charles Clay, a freshman, has caught 58 passes for 955 yards.
"I see a lot of talent in their receiving corps, but I think if we stay on top of them everything with sort out," Lewis said.
This course has begun to sort out nicely.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org -88.05324