After convincingly defeating Western Illinois 37-3 in their home-opener, the Wisconsin Badgers headed into an early bye week, where they looked to continue developing their young roster and build off the momentum they gained from their first victory of the season. Now, their sights are set on a very dangerous team from the Mid-American Conference, the Bowling Green Falcons.
Last season, the Falcons put together one of the most memorable seasons in program history, going 10-4 overall and 7-1 in conference play, including 47-27 victory over Jordan Lynch and the Northern Illinois Huskies in the MAC championship, which ultimately shattered the Huskies' BCS dreams. Their season culminated in a trip to the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, where they lost a heartbreaker in the final minutes to Pittsburgh 30-27.
But Bowling Green's success in 2013 came at a cost, as fifth-year head coach Dave Clawson left to take the vacant head coaching job at Wake Forest just four days after the Falcons won the conference championship.
Clawson is replaced by Dino Babers, who left Eastern Illinois after leading the Panthers to a 12-2 season and an Ohio Valley Conference championship. Babers looks to carry on the offensive success he had at Eastern Illinois, bringing his high-scoring system modeled after Art Briles' system at Baylor. As a result, the Falcons are already becoming one of the most exciting teams in college football.
While the rested Badgers prepare for this showdown at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday (11 a.m. CT), here are three key things you should know about the Falcons.
It's already been a roller coaster season for them
Although we're only in the fourth week of the season, the Falcons have already dealt with a handful of devastating injuries, a brand new offensive system, large defeats and shocking upsets.
It all started at the beginning of fall camp, when junior receiver Chris Gallon, the cousin of former Michigan standout Jeremy Gallon, went down with a knee injury. Gallon has since been ruled out for the entire 2014 season, a shame considering he had the potential to loom large in Babers' pass-heavy offense. In his freshmen year in 2012, Gallon hauled in 54 catches, 720 receiving yards and six touchdowns, leading the team in all three categories. Last season, he was off to a solid start before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Gallon was expected to be back at full strength to start the 2014 season, but after he reinjured his right knee in the summer, the news broke that he would once again be sidelined for the season.
The bad news continued in the first game of the season, as the Falcons were blown out
at home on the road 59-31 against Western Kentucky and lost starting quarterback Matt Johnson for the season to a hip injury.
Last season, Johnson replaced senior Matt Schilz (who was a three-year starter prior to 2013) during the first game of the season. The coaching staff never looked back on the decision, as Johnson went on to start in every game for the rest of the season. He ended up going 237-of-369, throwing for 3,467 yards, 25 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, while also adding 238 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Earlier this summer, he was voted the top MAC Football Player of 2014 by Hustle Belt's Pete Seymour and Thurman Dieter.
While the news of Johnson's injury initially appeared to catastrophic, the Falcons have managed nicely with sophomore James Knapke at the helm. Following the Week 1 loss to Western Kentucky, Bowling Green against the Virginia Military Institute with a 48-7 victory. Then, last week. the Falcons won a 45-42 shootout against Indiana, avenging a 42-10 loss they suffered against the Hoosiers in 2013. You can see some of the highlights from Saturday's game below.
Now that the Falcons have some momentum of their own, it will be interesting to see if Knapke is able to continue his stellar performance against another Big Ten defense this Saturday.
They run a fast-paced offense
Many experts touted Bowling Green as "the Baylor of the MAC" this off-season. So far in 2014, the Falcons have lived up to those expectations on offense.
Prior to his coaching stint at Eastern Illinois, Babers was a disciple of Art Briles at Baylor from 2008-11, where he worked as a receivers coach and was eventually promoted to work as the special teams coach while maintaining his duties with the receivers. Babers brings in an up-tempo offense, determined to run as many plays as possible.
As B5Q's Jake Kocorowksi pointed out in his defensive review yesterday, the Falcons ran 113 plays against Indiana, more than the Badgers have faced this entire season. And while it is fair to assume that the Badgers won't be giving the ball back as fast as Indiana did on Saturday, we can still expect to see this inexperienced UW defense unit tested by an offensive scheme that it hasn't had to deal with so far.
Last year at Eastern Illinois under Babers' system, the Panthers totaled 8,253 total yards on offense, averaging 589.5 per game and 6.8 per play. In comparison, against Indiana on Saturday, Bowling Green gained 571 total yards on offense, averaging 5.1 per play.
The Eastern Illinois' offense last year was led by Walter Payton Award winner Jimmy Garoppolo, who's now a member of the New England Patriots, serving as Tom Brady's backup. Garoppolo threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns. While Johnson was initially expected to put up similar numbers for Bowling Green this year, Knapke has been filling the role nicely since Johnson went down with his injury. Saturday, Knapke threw the ball 73 times, completing 46 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns.
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Also a major part of the Falcons' fast-paced offense is junior running back Travis Greene. Last season, Greene emerged as the go-to back for Bowling Green, finishing the year with 1,594 rushing yards to lead all MAC running backs. Last year, Greene averaged almost 20 carries per game, with 113.8 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. So far this year, the new offensive system hasn't seemed to change anything -- Greene's averages are almost identical to those of last years. After three games, he's averaging 20 carries per game, with 114.3 rushing yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry. Look familiar?
The Falcons also have weapons at receiver. Freshman Roger Lewis has been impressive thus far, catching 30 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns. Against Indiana, Lewis was the hero of the game, hauling in 16 passes for 149 yards along with catching the game-winning touchdown from 2 yards out with nine seconds left in the fourth quarter.
So far, their defense has been unimpressive
In 2013, the Falcons' defense was dominant, especially in conference play. Bowling Green led all MAC teams in total yards allowed last season with 4,500 yards, averaging 321.4 allowed per game; the next best team, Buffalo, averaged 382.8. On top of that, the Falcons also had the best run defense in the conference, allowing an average of 150.6 yards per game on the ground. They also had the second-best pass defense in the MAC, behind only Western Michigan, allowing an average of 170.9 passing yards per game (Western Michigan averaged 169.2 passing yards against, while also playing in two fewer games than Bowling Green).
The leader of the Falcons' defense appears to be senior linebacker, Gabe Martin. Despite missing the final seven games last season due to a season-ending knee injury, Martin was named second-team All-MAC. In his sophomore season, Martin was named first-team All-MAC after leading Bowling Green with 70 tackles and adding 8.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Martin appears to be back in normal form in 2014; so far, he's recorded 26 total tackles in the first three games.
But while Martin's performance has been solid, the rest of the Falcons' defense has had trouble keeping opponents out of the end zone. Part of this could be attributed to a new coaching staff. Besides losing their head coach, the Falcons also saw their defensive coordinator, Mike Elko, follow Clawson to take the defensive coordinator position at Wake Forest. Their new defensive coordinator, Kim McCloud, followed Babers from Eastern Illinois, where he had the same position.
The Falcons have let up a combined 1,708 total yards in their first three games of the year. Against Western Kentucky, Bowling Green's defense allowed 708 total yards and allowed Hilltoppers quarterback Brandon Doughty to throw for a school-record 569 yards and six touchdowns. Last week, the win over Indiana overshadowed the fact that the Hoosiers put up 582 total yards and ran all over the Falcons' defense, picking up 235 yards on the ground. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman ran for 190 yards on the ground and three touchdowns, averaging 7.9 yards per carry.
Wisconsin will look to exploit Bowling Green's poor rushing defense on Saturday after a surprisingly poor rushing performance against Western Illinois. While the Falcons' defense appears to be several steps down from the caliber it played at last year, their offense promises to keep the Badgers' defense on its toes throughout the game. Saturday will prove to be a tough test for a young, inexperienced UW defense. If it defense doesn't come to play this week, we can all expect to see a shootout at Camp Randall.