BOWLING GREEN — In each of the last two seasons, the Bowling Green State University football team has improved upon its performance from the prior year.
If the Falcons are able to pull that trick one more time, the program has a shot at claiming its first Mid-American Conference title since 1992.
BG opens spring practice today at Doyt Perry Stadium looking to take the next step after last year’s team finished 8-5 overall and 6-2 in the Mid-American Conference. The Falcons return all but three starters from a team which earned a berth in the Military Bowl.
“Every year you want to improve, you want to get better,” BG coach Dave Clawson said. “Coming off an eight-win season, that next step is the hardest step. We were a good football team last year, and we’re starting to become a good football program.
“But to be a special football team is another step, and it’s our goal for this year.”
Here are five questions the Falcons would like to answer this spring in hopes of taking that next step.
1. The Falcons return 10 starters on offense, but will all 10 of those players retain their starting jobs? Since the offense ranked just 10th in the MAC in scoring offense (22.9) and 11th in the 13-team league in total offense (365.5 yards per game), no position is safe.
“We’re going to open up the quarterback position and make it a three-way competition,” Clawson said, noting that three-year starter Matt Schilz will compete with sophomore Matt Johnson and redshirt freshman James Knapke. “On the offensive line we only graduated one [Jordon Roussos], but we’ve redshirted some really good guys, and this spring we’re going to give them a chance.”
2. Can Bowling Green get improved play from its specialists, especially at wide receiver and running back? That’s a particularly important question at running back, where the top two on the depth chart last season (Anthon Samuel and John Pettigrew) won’t be with the team in the spring. But it’s equally important at wide receiver, where a number of top performers return, but the unit produced just 212.1 passing yards per game (ninth-best in the MAC).
“Those were games where we were not able to go punch-for-punch with elite teams and score enough points to win,” Clawson said. “To be an elite team, at some point you’re going to have to put 35 or 42 points on the board. We just did not make enough big plays against the better teams.
“Chris Gallon showed flashes last year of being a good player, and so did Shaun Joplin. We need guys like Ryan Burbrink and Herve Coby to step up. We need some of those guys to become elite players, and some of those guys to become solid players.”
3. Can the Falcons defense be great again? Last season BG ranked sixth among FBS schools in total defense, allowing just 296.62 yards per game. And all but two starters and a number of key reserves return.
But those two missing players loom large: defensive tackle Chris Jones was the MAC’s defensive player of the year, while linebacker Dwayne Woods joined Jones as a three-time all-MAC pick.
“We’re not just replacing two guys; we’re replacing two of the best guys we’ve had here the last four years,” Clawson said.
Not only will the Falcons need replacements for Jones and Woods, BG will need other players — such as returning All-MAC picks Ted Ouellet on the defensive line, Gabe Martin at rover, and BooBoo Gates at safety — to perform at a high level.
4. Can Bowling Green get more consistent play on special teams? The best example of this was the punting unit, where Brian Schmiedebusch helped the Falcons rank fifth nationally in 2011, then fall all the way to 95th last season.
“This was an area that we thought was really inconsistent,” Clawson said. “We had a punt blocked, and that really hurt us in the bowl game. Our kickoff return unit wasn’t as good as it had been. The one unit I thought was pretty solid all year was the punt block-punt return unit.”
The main competition will be at long-snapper, where Cory Johnson was lost to graduation.
“Cory Johnson very quietly had a great year for us last year,” Clawson said. “I can’t tell you who is going to handle those snaps for us, so that’s a priority this spring.”
5. Does the fire remain for the Falcons to take that final step? Clawson certainly hopes so.
“We didn’t accomplish any of our goals last year — we did not win the MAC East, we did not win the MAC, and we did not win our bowl game,” he said. “When we played some of the elite teams, we may have played them tight, but we came up short.
“We’ve got to find a way to win those games.”
Contact John Wagner at: email@example.com, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.