BOWLING GREEN -- There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Bowling Green State University football team.
After setting a school record with 10 losses two seasons ago, the Falcons bounced back to finish 5-7 a year ago. Now Bowling Green enters this season feeling it is poised to take another step and compete for a Mid-American Conference championship and a bowl berth.
Fourth-year coach Dave Clawson is looking forward to the payoff for the work that went into rebuilding the BGSU program.
6 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE FALCONS
■ The Falcons return three All-Mid-American Conference first-team performers in DL Chris Jones, LB Dwayne Woods, and P Brian Schmiedebusch. The other 12 MAC schools have a combined seven, and only one school has more than one.
■ There are two sets of "double" numbers that bear watching. If No. 7 is on the field playing offense, that's QB Matt Schilz; if it's defense or special teams, that's LB D.J. Lynch. If you see No. 11 on offense, that's back-up QB Matt Johnson; on defense or special teams, that's LB Gabe Martin.
■ While head coach Dave Clawson is in his fourth season at BG, he already is the third-longest tenured coach in the league. The only two coaches who have been with their current teams longer are Ohio's Frank Solich and Western Michigan's Bill Cubit, both of whom are in their eighth seasons at their respective schools.
■ The Falcons return 20 starters from last season, including 10 on defense, seven on offense and three on special teams. That's the most among MAC teams, with Kent State and Northern Illinois next with 19 apiece.
■ Of BG's nine assistant coaches, five have been with head coach Dave Clawson for each of his four seasons with the Falcons. That includes both coordinators, Mike Elko (defense) and Warren Ruggerio (offense) as well as John Hunter (running backs), who is in his seventh season at BG, Adam Scheier (tight ends/special teams), and Mark Carney (wide receivers).
■ The Falcons will play their final regular-season game against Buffalo on Friday, Nov. 23. The game will be played at Crew Stadium in Columbus, marking BG's first neutral-site regular-season game since playing Wisconsin at Cleveland Browns Stadium to open the 2006 season.
"We knew we were going to go through two years of low numbers and low experience, and we got through those years," Clawson said. "I think right now our program is in great shape.
"We have a great foundation -- good numbers, good experience, our kids have done a good job academically, retention rates have been high. We've been looking forward to this season for a long while."
Funny thing is, BG hasn't set goals that include a particular win total or post-season achievement.
"We've set our goals to be a mentally tough team, to be a consistent team, and to give a lot of effort," junior quarterback Matt Schilz said. "Obviously you want to win as many games as possible, win a MAC Championship, and go to a bowl game. But we're focused on getting better and just 'bringing it.'
"That's what is going to make us better."
Clawson said his team's success hinges on improvement in three areas.
"For us to achieve our goals, three things have to happen," he said. "We have to stop the run on defense, we can't turn the ball over on offense, and we have to find ways to win games that are close in the fourth quarter."
Step one involves a defense that finished 104th among 120 FBS schools by allowing more than 203 rushing yards a game. The good news is that not only do 10 of 11 defensive starters from a year ago return, but BG returns 17 of last season's top 20 tacklers.
"It's great that, not only is the starter back, but the guy who was the fifth defender in the nickel package is back," Clawson said.
The line will be anchored by senior defensive tackle Chris Jones, who ranked among the MAC leaders with 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Among the returnees at linebacker are two-time All-MAC pick Dwayne Woods, a senior who led BG in tackles a year ago with 111 while making 14 tackles for loss, and Paul Swan, a junior who added 63 stops.
The defensive backfield is led by a pair of talented safeties in BooBoo Gates, who had 73 tackles, and Ryland Ward, who had 69 stops.
This wealth of returnees prompted Jones to say the Falcons' job on defense is more than just stopping the run.
"Getting our offense into good field position has become one of our goals," he said. "But we're working on stopping the run; you want to be a good defense in stopping the run so other teams are forced to pass and you can get after the quarterback.
"And two years ago we were really good at getting turnovers, and last year we weren't as good. Winning teams have positive turnover margins, and when you have a minus-13 turnover ratio [like we did last year] that's not a good number for a successful team."
GETTING TO KNOW ... DAVID KEKUEWA
David Kekuewa took a long route to Bowling Green, growing up in Hawaii and playing junior college ball at Arizona Western before joining the Falcons starting last spring.
"[Bowling Green] is definitely not Hawaii," said the 6-2, 308-pound junior, who is called "Chief" by his teammates. "It's definitely the coldest weather I've been in. The first day of snow I was outside, just having fun in snow for the first time."
Kekuewa was a junior college All-American at Arizona Western last season, and this season he's pushing for the starting center position at BG. Even if he doesn't get the job, he adds to the Falcons' depth in the middle of the line, shoring up an area that has been one of the team's biggest concerns the past two seasons.
For the offense, last year's 28 turnovers was a total surpassed by nine FBS schools -- and was a focus on drills since spring ball started.
"That has been on my mind since last season," Schilz said. "We need to make less mistakes on offense. My individual goal for this year is to make just seven turnovers, max.
"If I throw six less interceptions [than] last season, we win three or four more games."
Schilz, who threw for 3,024 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, is one of seven returning starters on offense.
A deep group of running backs is headlined by Anthon Samuel, who ran for 844 yards to win MAC freshman of the year honors last season.
There were numerous losses at the receiver position, but a talented cast -- which includes juniors Shaun Joplin (21 catches, 292 yards) and Michigan transfer Je'Ron Stokes, sophomore Heath Jackson, and freshmen Chris Gallon, Herve Coby, and Ryan Burbrink, among others -- is competing for playing time.
And while the offensive line lost linchpin Ben Bojicic at center, a foundation returns in seniors Chip Robinson and Jordan Roussos along with juniors Dominic Flewellyn and David "Chief" Kekuewa. Freshmen Fahn Cooper and Alex Huettel should see significant action as well.
When you add in special-teams stalwarts such as Brian Schmiedebusch, the MAC's top punter last season, and Gates on kickoff returns, it's obvious that the preseason expectations for Bowling Green to compete for a league title are warranted.
"When you have that many returning starters back, you're going to have those expectations," Schilz said.
"But we still have young guys. I'm only 20, and I'm in my third year as a starter.
"But we have experience, and we have a great group of guys."