BOWLING GREEN — Two years ago, the defensive units on the Bowling Green State University football team struggled.
That group was one of the worst in FBS football when it came to stopping the run, ranking 104th nationally — out of 120 teams — and the scoring numbers weren’t good, either.
Last season that defense blossomed. BG ranked no lower than 13th in all four major categories, and its fine effort was a big reason the Falcons posted a 6-2 record in the Mid-American Conference and earned a bid to the Military Bowl before finishing 8-5.
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While that was a step forward for a team that two seasons prior went 2-10, a repeat won’t be good enough for a team and fan base that realize a MAC title is a realistic expectation.
“In this league, if you’re really, really good on one side of the ball, it can give you a winning season and maybe a bowl,” coach Dave Clawson said. “But if you want to contend for a championship, you can’t just be ‘good’ on one side or the other.
“Last year Northern Illinois [won the MAC because it] was good on both sides of the ball. If you look at the other bowl teams in our league, Northern was the only team that was [ranked] in the top half on both offense and defense.”
Thanks to nine returning starters, including four players who won Mid-American Conference honors last season, the defense is expecting to maintain its successes.
The question is whether the offense, which was in the bottom half of the FBS rankings in 2012, can make the same jump this season the defense did last year.
The offense lost two starters on the offensive line as well as leading rusher Anthon Samuel, who ran for 998 yards and 11 touchdowns in 12 games. The Falcons return more than starters at nine of the 12 positions listed on the depth chart: six are seniors, which Clawson said is a more important number.
“This is the first time in four years that we’ve had a number of fourth- and fifth-year seniors that start for us,” he said. “It’s nice to have a veteran group that knows what the expectations are.”
Part of the statistical problem for the offense was it became more conservative last season, a wise more because it allowed the Falcons to stay away from turnovers that might cost them wins.
“After the second half at Akron, we got really good at running the ball,” said senior quarterback Matt Schilz, who threw for 2,585 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. “We got in the mode of running the ball and managing the game because we would get a lead. We didn’t take any risks that might lead to a turnover that would change the game around.
“This year I think we’re going to have to throw the ball more. This year we’re going to have to win some games throwing the ball and scoring points. We’ll have to be more aggressive.”
That puts a spotlight on potential playmakers at receiver such as sophomore Chris Gallon, who led the team with 54 catches for 720 yards and six touchdowns, and senior Shaun Joplin, who had 40 catches for 639 yards and four scores.
“We need to make more plays, and I think our guys did that in the fall,” Schilz said. “The big thing is the details, and I think we’re getting better at that.
“You have to have the little details right. For example, if you’re one inch off [on a pass or a route], a defender can break up a pass that otherwise can lead to a touchdown. Attention to details consistently leads to a good offense.”
All of that concern with the offense assumes that the defense remains strong. And that’s not guaranteed, because the two players lost were MAC defensive player of the year Chris Jones at defensive tackle and three-time All-MAC linebacker Dwayne Woods.
Picking up the slack for Woods at linebacker will be junior rover Gabe Martin, a first-team all-league pick with a team-high 70 tackles, and senior Paul Swan, who finished third on the team with 65 stops. Among the leaders on the defensive line is senior Ted Ouellet, an All-MAC choice whose 35 tackles included six for loss.
The defensive backfield returns intact and includes two seniors who received All-MAC honors in safety Jerry "Booboo" Gates (47 tackles, two interceptions) and cornerback Cameron Truss (63 tackles, five passes broken up).
While the offense faces the pressure to make more plays, Swan admitted the defense needs to sustain its performances from a year ago
“It puts pressure on us, because everyone wants to raise our level,” he said. “It’s about coming out every day and bringing a higher level of play.
“That’s tough, but we’re a veteran group and we should be able to do that.”
5 PREDICTIONS: Looking ahead this season.
■ The Falcons list Travis Greene as the starter at running back and Jordan Hopgood as the top back-up. If uninjured, those two will be productive. Yet by season’s end, another running back will lead the Falcons in rushing yards or touchdowns. Or both.
■ At least one freshman will make a splash at a skill position. That breakout first-year player may be a running back such as Fred Coppet, William Houston, or Marcus Levy. Or it could be a receiver/return man such as Ronnie Moore or Teo Redding.
■ The two thinnest positions on the BG roster are linebacker and cornerback. If injuries hit, inexperienced players will be expected to step up and play – and play well – immediately.
■ Senior Matt Schilz won the starting quarterback job. But at some point sophomore Matt Johnson will play, and not just in mop-up situations. In a perfect world, the Falcons also will give freshman James Knapke as many snaps as they can.
■ For the second straight year, the MAC defensive player of the year will come from BG. The top candidates include senior safety Jerry Gates and junior rover Gabe Martin, two players who are capable of making big plays all over the field.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING: "Bowling Green is built to win today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future." – Paul Myerberg, USA Today.
"Bowling Green has everything to take the next step. They can be really good, especially with that defense." – An anonymous MAC coach quoted in Lindy’s.
"Dave Clawson has his program in position to win a division title for the first time since 2003, when Bowling Green won the MAC West." – Athlon Sports.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.