KENT, Ohio — Any question as to who would quarterback the Bowling Green State University football team was answered emphatically in the Falcons’ 41-22 victory against Kent State on Saturday.
Sophomore Matt Johnson completed 19 of 25 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s Mid-American Conference opener. What’s more, he led the Falcons to scores on six of their first seven drives on a day when the BG defense struggled early before asserting itself.
“[Johnson] played well — you don’t need me to figure out that one,” Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said. “And that’s his first college start.
“I’m sure we’ll go back and nitpick the film to find all the little things he could have done better, but he made plays. He makes plays with his feet, and that opens up some aspects of our offense for us.”
Johnson’s passing and a solid rushing attack that posted 219 yards, including 145 yards by Travis Greene, helped the Falcons (2-0, 1-0 MAC) finish with 576 yards of total offense, the most during Clawson’s time at BG.
“We had a good game plan, and the coaches prepared us well,” Johnson said. “After the first series, we saw that they weren’t doing anything different than we had practiced against. So there weren’t any tricks, and there weren’t any surprises, so I and the team felt extremely confident.”
Bowling Green took the opening kickoff and rolled 77 yards on nine plays. Greene had 48 of those yards on six carries, including a one-yard TD plunge that capped the drive.
And that was the theme for the Falcons offense in the first half: After a punt on their second series, they scored on their next three possessions.
Tyler Tate booted a 30-yard field goal, Andre Givens closed out a 75-yard drive with a three-yard touchdown run, and Jared Cohen touched the pylon with the ball after catching a seven-yard pass from Johnson for a score.
Problem was, while BG seemed to score on every possession, Kent State (1-1, 0-1) did too.
“Credit to Kent — they really had us on our heels in the first half,” Clawson said. “In the second half we did a better job of bringing pressure.
“In the first half they created a lot of run-pass dilemmas. We were not handling the zone-read option at all. When we brought pressure, that sorted things out for us.”
The Golden Flashes scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, and they scored on a two-point conversion run following the first TD. That’s why BG found itself trailing 22-17 with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first half.
“In the first half we came out excited — a little overly excited, it seemed,” junior rover Gabe Martin said. “We were making simple mistakes.
“At halftime we were telling people to settle down. We knew the offense was doing a great job out there, and we were indebted to them, so we had to get back.”
Kent State accumulated 247 yards of total offense on 28 first-half plays, including 116 yards rushing. But in the second half the Falcons allowed just 55 yards on 28 plays and did not allow the Golden Flashes to score again.
The Golden Flashes played without senior running back Dri Archer, who suffered a twisted ankle against Liberty.
“We were still amped up, but it was more of a calm emotion,” said Martin, who led BG with nine tackles. “I thought we played more like we used to, and we got our swagger [back].”
Meanwhile, the offense kept rolling. The Falcons got a 41-yard field goal on their first drive of the second half, then broke things open late in the third quarter.
Facing a third-and-15 from their own 8, Johnson hit Ryan Burbrink in stride at midfield with a pass that the sophomore carried 92 yards for a touchdown on the third-longest pass in school history.
BG iced the game with a five-play, 66-yard drive to start the fourth quarter, with William Houston scoring on a one-yard plunge. That allowed Johnson to enjoy the road victory from the sideline — and contemplate exactly what he and the offense had done.
“I said, ‘Who would have thought we would be carrying the defense in the first half?’ ” he said. “In the last game we only put up six points, and they shut out Tulsa — and they were known for carrying us last year.
“So it felt really good to know that, even though they weren’t playing up to what we expect, we can still move the ball and put points on the board.”