BOWLING GREEN - The Bowling Green State University football players are like any other team. When the third quarter ends and the clock is being reset to 15:00, each player lifts one hand with four fingers extended into the air. It's the fourth quarter. It's ours.
"Meaningless," Dave Clawson told his team.
The Falcons were 1-4 and had lost four straight. Three of the defeats had come by seven-point margins in games that were up for grabs in the fourth quarter.
For this team, four fingers was a meaningless gesture. It was more like the Falcons were counting up losses.
And, then, they were down by 12 points at Kent State with less than five minutes to play.
"We don't get that one and, well, it gets a lot tougher," Clawson said.
Later today, the Falcons, now 7-5, will learn to which postseason bowl game they are invited.
Yes, BG rallied to a 36-35 victory that day at Kent to start a stretch drive that saw the Falcons win six of their last seven games. Sure, a soft back-end schedule had something to do with it. None of BG's six victims in Mid-American Conference play finished with a winning record.
Be that as it may, the Falcons heading to a bowl game is no small accomplishment. And it started at the top with a new head coach who refused to let his team reach for any of several convenient excuses to pack it in when the going was tough.
You may not be aware of this, but due to a variety of issues
over the past two or three seasons there are 30-plus unused jerseys hanging in the BG equipment room representing players who should be in the program right now but are not.
Thus, you may not be aware that in the majority of games this season the Falcons dressed a mere 50 scholarship players. The Division I-A limit is 85.
"There were several reasons," Clawson said last week. "We lost scholarships [NCAA academic penalties]. We lost players for disciplinary and academic reasons. We had some young kids we very much wanted to redshirt.
"You'd like to spread your starters around and have them play on one, maybe two special teams. We had starters playing on three, sometimes all four special teams. There were games where we were hanging by a thread, injury-wise, to the point where if we'd lost another player I'm not sure who would have gone in.
"So, yeah, when we got off to the bad start, record-wise, all the excuses were there. But our seniors didn't reach for them. Instead, they gave great effort."
First-year head coaches and seniors are sometimes oil and water. This wasn't Clawson's first rodeo. He went 0-11 in his first season as head coach at Fordham. He went 3-8 in his first season coaching at Richmond.
"I've been involved in other transitions where the seniors sort of fight you," Clawson said. "They fight change, and there is a hesitation to buy in. That's why I appreciate this senior class so much. There was none of that.
"I told them in our first meeting a year ago that I was adopting them. I said, 'I'm going to treat each and every one of you as if I recruited you.' All I asked was that they treat this coaching staff with the same kind of respect. And it was that attitude by our seniors that allowed us to over-achieve this year."
Boy, did they ever. But this was an impressive coaching job, as well, by Clawson and his staff.
Bluntly, the offense had a tremendous receiver in Freddie Barnes, an experienced and talented quarterback in Tyler Sheehan, an above-average tight end in Jimmy Scheidler, and a reliable lineman in Shane Steffy. The defense? Well, the MAC coaches announced their postseason all-star team last week, and there were 39 defensive players honored representing 12 of the league's 13 schools. Exactly none of them were from Bowling Green.
Clawson kicked his best defensive lineman off the team before the season started. He suspended his best overall defensive player for the first six games. P.J. Mahone, a strong safety, made up for lost time when he returned, and a bunch of other seniors - cornerback Roger Williams, end Brandon Jackson, and the linebacking corps of Jerett Sanderson, Cody Basler, and James Schneider - played the best ball of their careers.
But Clawson started the season with very few impact players and, in the eyes of his peers, apparently ended it the same way. And won seven games. And has his team headed for a bowl game. Eight MAC coaches can claim neither accomplishment.
After dropping to 1-4 with a 44-37 loss at home to Ohio, Clawson walked into a morose locker room mere seconds after a potential game-tying pass had been dropped in the end zone and told his players:
"Guys, I've been here before. There's no easy answer. There's no magical remedy except to continue to work and believe. People are going to be criticizing you and criticizing me. So be it. We can turn this around. But you have to work. If you don't, it won't happen. It will do nothing but get worse."
So the Falcons went back to work. Clawson went back to work.
And they're still in business.
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