BOWLING GREEN — In 1991, the Bowling Green State University football team won a Mid-American Conference title that came out of the blue.
The Falcons had posted a 3-5-2 record a year earlier, causing the dismissal of coach Moe Ankney in favor of Gary Blackney. But that did not stop the 1991 squad from an 11-1 season that included a perfect 8-0 mark in MAC play and a victory over Fresno State in the California Raisin Bowl.
Still, some wondered if the 1992 squad could reproduce the results of the previous season.
“I know there were doubters in 1991, and there were still doubters in ’92 — people who wondered if we could repeat that success,” said the team’s quarterback both seasons, Erik White. “And there was some justification for that.”
Part of that doubt stemmed from a 1992 schedule that featured road contests against two Big Ten teams, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
“And a lot of people may not remember that after we played Ohio State and Wisconsin, we played East Carolina — and they had been to the Peach Bowl the previous year,” White said. “That’s a gauntlet.”
But the ’92 Falcons ran that gauntlet with great success. They won a second straight MAC title with an 8-0 record and finished 10-2 on the season, losing only to the Big Ten opponents.
Bowling Green opened the season with a win against MAC opponent Western Michigan before taking on the Buckeyes. In front of a crowd of 94,808 at Ohio Stadium — at that time, the second-largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe — the Falcons surrendered just 237 yards of total offense to a unit that included quarterback Kirk Herbstreit, wide receiver Joey Galloway, tailback Raymont Harris, and tackle Alan Kline.
The outcome was a 17-6 loss that felt like a moral victory.
“For 10 years after that game, whenever I would talk football with an Ohio State fan, they would say, ‘You beat Ohio State that day,’” White said with a laugh. “I always have to tell them we didn’t, but it was clear the public perception was that we could play with them. People had to take us seriously.”
The Falcons also lost at Wisconsin by a 39-18 score, then beat East Carolina by 10 before rattling off seven more regular-season wins.
Bowling Green’s closest win during the regular season came, as you might expect, against their archrivals from Toledo. That mid-October night game at the Glass Bowl was expected to be an offensive shootout between quarterbacks White from BG and Kevin Meger of UT.
Instead the two defenses stood tall — but Bowling Green’s stood tallest, especially when its back was against the wall.
Late in the first half the Rockets mounted a 16-play drive that began on their own 7 and eventually netted a first-and-goal from BG’s 1. On first down, Toledo’s Casey McBeth tried to jump the pile, but he was met at the top of his leap by Artie Mangham for no gain.
Meger kept the ball on a second-down option play but was stopped by Carlos Brooks; on third down, Meger’s sneak attempt was walled by the middle of the BG line.
And on fourth-and-goal, with 39 seconds left in the half, Vince Palko stuffed a run by McBeth just shy of the goal, preserving Bowling Green’s 7-3 advantage into halftime.
“If they score there, the momentum surely shifted to them,” Blackney said. “But our defense stepped up.”
But the heroics of the Falcons defense did not end there: When McBeth scored with just 6:43 left in the game, true freshman Jason Woullard sacked Meger on a two-point conversion attempt to preserve a 10-9 lead. And that held up when UT’s Rusty Hanna missed a 49-yard field goal with just 34 seconds left.
Bowling Green finished with four more wins to wrap up the MAC title and earn a berth in the Las Vegas Bowl against Nevada from the Big West.
In that contest the Falcons dominated the first half, rolling up 267 yards of offense to take a commanding 28-3 halftime lead. That lead would evaporate in the second half, though, as Wolfpack quarterback Chris Vargas engineered five straight TD drives.
BG trailed 34-28, but the Falcons defense forced a punt — and the Nevada punter fumbled the snap off his facemask, allowing Bowling Green to recover the ball on the Nevada 15 with 1:48 left. Then, on a fourth-and-goal play from the 3, White threw a touchdown pass to Dave Hankins with just 22 seconds left, and Brian Leaver’s extra point gave BG a 35-34 win.
“On the play before the punt, they had a third-and-short, and if they get it they can run the clock out and win the game,” White said. “But Dave Bielinski, our free safety, came flying up into the hole and stuffed the running back to force them to punt.
“We block the punt and recover it. And then we score the touchdown to win the game.”
Blackney said the comeback in the bowl victory epitomized the mindset of his team that entire season.
“Our guys never believed they were going to lose,” he said. “They always felt that some way, somehow, if they were on a balanced football field, they would win. ...
“And it happened over and over again.”
White said the success of those squads from 1991 and ’92, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the struggles in the years prior, provides a lesson for this year’s Falcons, who enter Wednesday’s game against Toledo with a losing record.
“I was on a team that won two games at Bowling Green, so I’ve been there,” he said. “Individually, I would tell them to keep working. My definition of ‘work’ means that it’s a privilege to be a college athlete, and they should never lose sight of that. They should give everything they have; they owe it to themselves, their team, and their university.
“And to the team, I would tell them to rely on each other. Don’t do any finger pointing. Trust the process, believe in the coaches, and trust everyone who is in the battle with you.”
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