BOWLING GREEN — For fans who remember last year’s season-ending game between the Bowling Green State University football team and Buffalo, here’s a tip: Forget it.
“Last year these were both teams that had good defenses, and could run the ball,” Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson said of the game, which BG won 21-7. “Now they are [both] getting improved quarterback play.”
That stronger QB play will be on display Friday when the two teams clash for the MAC’s East Division title. The contest, which will be played at Ralph Wilson Stadium Friday, will kick off at 1:30 p.m. with the Falcons as a narrow 1½-point favorite.
Buffalo has leaned on sophomore Joe Licata, who has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,407 yards and 21 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
“He’s a prototypical drop-back quarterback,” Clawson said of Licata. “He can put the ball on the numbers, he can make the field-out throw, and he’s got good arm strength.
“He is mobile enough to protect himself. He’s not really a running quarterback, but he’s certainly athletic enough to make plays from his feet.”
As a result of his improved play, Buffalo has improved its offensive numbers from last season. Last year the Bulls ranked next-to-last in the MAC with 21.2 points per game and stood 10th in the 13-team league with 375.8 yards of total offense per game.
This year the numbers have jumped to 33.0 points per game and 416.9 yards of total offense, both fifth-best in the MAC.
“Joe has developed himself into a real leader of our offense,” Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn said. “He’s done a better job of adjusting to what defenses are doing.
“He’s got an uncanny knack of anticipating where the ball goes. He’s got great accuracy, and he’s done a good job of being smart with the ball.”
When you combine that improved passing attack with the running of senior Brandon Oliver, who averages 137.5 rushing yards per game, you see the problem facing the Falcons.
“It’s the age-old dilemma: You’ve got to stop the run by ganging up,” Clawson said. “If you do that, you expose yourself on the perimeter to an effective quarterback and some good receivers.”
The good news is that the play of Matt Johnson, the Falcons’ sophomore quarterback, has elevated Bowling Green’s offense as well. Johnson has completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 2,572 yards and 17 scores with just six interceptions.
As a result, the Falcons averages of 22.9 points and 365.5 yards of total offense last season, both of which ranked among the bottom of the MAC, have jumped to 35.4 points and 461.7 yards of total offense, both third in the league.
Perhaps the biggest concern for Bowling Green is to tighten up its pass protection. BG enters the game having allowed 31 sacks, second-most among MAC schools, while Buffalo has a league-best 35 sacks.
In last year’s 21-7 win at Columbus Crew Stadium, the Falcons didn’t give up a single sack to the team that, at the time, ranked as the MAC leader in that category.
“How did we do it? We didn’t throw the ball,” Clawson said.
“We threw a couple of bombs, but we got a lead in the first half and we were ultra-conservative in the second half.”
While the BG running game also has been good, with Travis Greene averaging 117.5 yards per game, being one-dimensional won’t be good enough to win Friday.