After an 50-21 Week 1 victory against Richmond, Maryland will see an uptick in competition Sept. 12, when it hosts Mid-American Conference mainstay Bowling Green in a noon bout. The Falcons suffered a 59-30 defeat at the hands of Tennessee last week, but this is a tough, veteran squad that has won the MAC East Division in each of the last two years and has finished with at least eight victories in the past three seasons. And, really, BGSU was only a few plays and missed opportunities away from staying right with the Vols throughout.
Dino Babers, who led Bowling Green to an 8-6 record and a win in the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl over South Alabama last year, returns for his second season as head coach. He heads a team that returns all 11 starters back from an up-tempo offense, although the defense is still a work in progress with just three returners.
Predictably, Bowling Green had some issues pitted against an SEC foe like Tennessee (two turnovers, bonehead mistakes), but the Falcons still racked up an eye-popping 557 yards, including 433 through the air. Fact is, this is a dangerous offensive squad, and they showed it in their season-opening affair in Knoxville, Tenn.
Last year, with co-offensive coordinators Sean Lewis and Mike Lynch serving as masterminds, BGSU put up 30 points a night and averaged 433 yards per game. The fourth-year assistants have devised a Baylor-esque scheme, pushing the tempo to the tune of 80-plus plays an outing -- a breakneck pace that keeps defenses guessing and tests their conditioning.
The offense is considered a spread, but not in the mold of an all-aerial attack. Rather, the Falcons are fairly balanced, the quarterbacks tossing quick strikes and the backs running for quick hitters. Regardless of ratio, look for BGSU to line up with a shotgun signal caller; four receivers out wide; and one back in the backfield.
Once in awhile, Bowling Green will enter a pro-set to give defenses a different look, and sometimes (mostly in the red zone) the Falcons will remove a receiver in favor of a bigger tight end too.
It doesn’t much matter what scheme they’re in, though. This is a veteran bunch with everyone back, and they should be even more prolific than in 2014.
After breaking his hip in 2013, which knocked him out for all but one game last season, Matt Johnson (Sr., 6-0, 219) returns for a final go-around as Bowling Green’s starting quarterback. Johnson actually had to re-win his job this offseason, and he ably did so, out-performing incumbent James Knapke (Jr., 6-2, 237), who completed 58 percent of his throws for 3,173 yards and 15 touchdowns against 12 interceptions in 2014.
Johnson is a heady signal caller who reads defenses well and makes sound decisions, but he’s no mere game manager. The fifth-year senior can make plays; he generates yards with his arm and sometimes his feet (his first option is always to throw, but he can keep defenses honest by scrambling). Johnson doesn’t have a rifle, but he can complete most of the throws, especially the short-to-intermediate passes he’s required to hit in BGSU’s spread. And while tossing around those 10-yard outs and slants, Johnson’s typically on-point, leading receivers and allowing them to make plays after the catch.
Johnson will take his shots down the field, but don’t expect him to throw into double coverage or challenge the middle of a zone. He’s more apt to check down or throw the ball away rather than risk an interception.
Last week, Johnson was a bit rusty at times, but came on strong. He ended up completing 27-of-49 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns.
The Falcons typically employ two main running backs to carry the bulk of the load. The starter, Travis Greene (Sr., 5-10, 189), is the faster of the pair, while Fred Coppet (Jr., 5-9, 205) is more of a bulldozer.
A former receiver who just switched to running back last year, Greene readily took to his new role. Using both speed and shifty, make-you-miss moves, the nimble-footed Greene ended up with 949 yards (5.3 yards per carry ) and a dozen score in 2014. Last week, though, he produced 34 yards on nine carries against Tennessee’s active front.
Coppet, meanwhile, is a burly, downhill runner with little shake to his game. Naturally, Bowling Green likes to use him in short-yardage situations, but Greene’s not exactly a bumbling back. He has some burst, and if a defense doesn’t wrap up he can shoot into the secondary. Last year, Coppet racked up 764 yards (5.4 yards per carry) and scored six times, although he had only 12 attempts for 63 yard in the UT bout.
More often than not, the Falcons will line up with four receivers, two on the outside and two in the slot. They have four main starters, but since they’re so deep as many as eight will see playing time.
The “X” and “Y” receivers are Gehrig Dieter (Jr., 6-3, 207) and Roger Lewis (So., 6-0, 199), the latter figuring to enter onto NFL radars in a year or two.
The sophomore Lewis was the first BGSU freshman to break the 1,000-yard mark (team-high 73 receptions for 1,093 yards and seven touchdowns) and is considered either the best or second-best wideout the MAC has to offer. He’s known for his hands, precise route-running, in-air prowess and body control, although he’s not a burner. Lewis can get behind many MAC corners, but would probably be more of a possession guy at the FBS level. Either way, he’s a reliable receiver and a chain mover. Against Tennessee, Lewis recorded two receptions for 49 yards.
Dieter, meanwhile, presents a large target and may have the softest hands on the team. He too runs solid routes, but has even less pure speed than Lewis. Look for Dieter, who pulled down 35 passes for 460 yards last season, to operate in that 10- to 15-yard range, although he could have some trouble defeating jams. Last week, Dieter nabbed a team-high seven passes for 133 yards and a touchdown.
While Dieter and Lewis hold down the outside, Ronnie Moore (Jr., 5-9, 170) and Ryan Burbrink (Sr., 5-8, 183) operate out of the slot.
If the name “Burbrink” rings a bell, it’s because he’s a Maryland native who starred at DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) a few years ago. The redshirt senior is reportedly “really excited” to be playing his hometown team, and more than likely he’ll have a few chances to show out. Coming off a 64-catch, 748-yard, three-touchdown campaign, Burbrink has become a security blanket of sorts. He’s not especially fleet of foot, but he’s quick, precise and smart, all of which make the slot seem faster than his 40 time would indicate. Burbrink has the ability to sit down in a zone’s soft spot, and find openings in-between linebackers/safeties. Last week, Burbrink had four catches for 70 yards.
Moore, meanwhile, is the faster of the two slots. The Falcons like to get the ball in his hands and let him make plays after the catch, taking advantage of his pure speed and elusiveness. You’ll see Moore run a variety of routes, as well as take a jet-sweep or two around end. Against Tennessee, Moore tallied five receptions for 95 yards.
The above four are the starters, but it’s worth noting their backups since all see the field.
Dieter’s No. 2, Chris Gallon (Sr., 6-4, 246), missed a season-and-a-half with two knee injuries, but he’s healthy now. His size and hands make him a formidable red-zone target against MAC competition, but Gallon’s still working back into playing shape.
Another outside receiver, Herve Coby (Sr., 6-0, 185), is a superior athlete but has struggled some with fundamentals, limiting his playing time. The Falcons may send him deep if they need a big play, but he’s probably seventh or eighth on the depth chart otherwise.
The slot Robbie Rhodes (So., 6-0, 190) transferred from Baylor and was considered the No. 2 receiver in the nation coming out of high school. But the quick-twitch, speed-demon Rhodes hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far. He was injured during camp and hasn’t shown much since arriving at Bowling Green either. Rhodes has the potential to be special, but at this point he has much to prove.
Last but not least, there’s the slot Teo Redding (So., 6-1, 167), who had a standout August camp. Redding, who is returning from injury, is a potential big-play threat that can make plays underneath and up top. Of all the backups, Redding might be most primed to grab a starting nod.
Bowling Green will use its tight end more this year than in the past, but don’t expect either Derek Lee (Sr., 6-4, 258) or Hunter Folkertsma (So., 6-5, 244) to become the next Rob Gronkowski-Kellen Winslow combo. In certain sub-packages, such as when BGSU is nearing the opposing goal line or needs an extra blocker, the tight end will enter the game. Otherwise, it’s four wides and go, go, go.
Lee, the starter, transferred in from junior college and showed good hands and solid point-of-attack blocking in camp. He’s a big body who the quarterback Johnson targeted down the middle during August. Lee, who isn’t especially quick, ended up catching X pass against the Vols.
Folkertsma is basically in the same mold as Lee. But since Lee’s the senior, he gets the No. 1 nod, meaning the sophomore has to wait his turn. That said, Folkertsma stepped up against Tennessee, scoring a touchdown on his only reception of the game.
The bulwark of Bowling Green, the unit that should probably be on the media guide’s cover. The Falcons return all five starters from a year ago, and have even more linemen who saw plenty of time rotating in in 2014.
This is an athletic, conditioned group that runs well and can take on linebackers in space, necessary in BGSU’s up-tempo attack. But the front five are also large enough and physical enough to drive block, opening holes for a power running game. But maybe most importantly, it’s a cohesive unit that’s developed plenty of chemistry the last two years.
Last season, the offensive line paved the way for an offense that averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 260 passing yards per game. (BGSU averaged only 3.6 yards per carry last week).
The two tackles, Jacob Bennett (Jr., 6-5, 319) and Logan Dietz (Jr., 6-6, 298), have both started 29 times (the maximum possible number) the last two-plus years. Of the two, the right tackle Dietz is considered the more potent blocker. He’s a sturdy, tough specimen, but also possesses deft enough feet to contain edge rushers and maneuver to the second level. Dietz reads defenses well too, actively picking up blitzing linebackers.
The left tackle Bennett, meanwhile, isn’t far behind in terms of proficiency. He’s not quite as large or athletic as Dietz, but that doesn’t mean he’s lacking in either area. Bennett has gotten the job done pass and run blocking the last two years, with no threats to his starting gig.
Typically, it’s the tackles who are the main cogs up front, but for Bowling Green, right guard Alex Huettel (Sr., 6-4, 301) might be the squad’s most dependable performer. The senior has started all 41 games during his career, winning All-MAC honors twice. A witty, wide-bodied interior lineman, Huettel anchors the trenches, often identifying defensive shifts and making calls. Not to mention he more than holds his own at the point of attack, while flashing the necessary athleticism to pull in space.
At left guard, Ryan Hunter (So., 6-4, 308) lost 20 pounds during the offseason and came into camp in great shape. Hunter was actually a backup last year, but performed so well in August he beat out the incumbent, Ben Steward (Jr., 6-6, 304), who is now the No. 2. Now, Steward was solid all of 2014, so if Hunter falters he could easily reclaim the starting job. Expect both to push each other all season, which should make them even more potent.
The center, Tim McAuliffe (So., 6-0, 272), earned the starting nod as a freshman last summer. Of course, he’s an astute student of the game (what center isn’t?), but McAuliffe is more athletic than most centers. He excels at pulling and pushing to the second level, often the lead blocker when BGSU runs traps inside. McAuliffe is small, however, so a larger defensive front could push him around.
Besides Steward, note backup guard J.J. Beggan (Jr., 6-3, 291), who played in all 14 games in 2014. Beggan would probably start on most MAC (and even some FBS) lines, but hasn’t been able to break into the lead lineup at guard-heavy Bowling Green.
Bowling Green’s offense may have to carry the team, at least early during the year, because the defense is very young with only three returning starters. Granted, there are a number of Falcons who saw action last season, but not to the extent where they’re going to be surefire studs right away.
Of course, one could argue BGSU was in need of a face-lift anyway. After all, the Falcons surrendered 33.5 points and 494 yards per game in 2014, both high numbers even with a fast-paced offense.
The latter may be why Bowling Green has a new defensive coordinator heading into 2015. Brian Ward comes over from Western Illinois and has installed a 4-3 scheme with multiple sets, hoping to disguise coverages and attack from more angles than previous editions. Bowling Green won’t blitz like crazy, but the Falcons figure to employ more odd fronts, dime packages and the like.
Now, there figures to be growing pains initially, evidenced by the fact BGSU just gave up 59 points and 604 yards in Week 1. But perhaps with more seasoning and experience the Falcons will eventually develop into a respectable MAC unit.
Bowling Green’s D-line features three new starters from 2014, meaning the Falcons must replace a trio that accounted for more than a third of the team’s 28 sacks. On top of that, the only returner is a walk-on who just recently earned a scholarship.
At one end spot, Bryan Baird (Sr., 6-4, 243)has finally ascended to the lead role after four years on campus. He’s rotated in quite a bit -- 19 tackles, a sack and four tackles for loss in 13 games last season -- but sat behind some prolific edge rushers until now. During camp, he had a high motor and a fast first step, although he was neutralized last week against a superior foe (three total tackles). Fact is, Baird isn’t quite big enough to dominate against many FBS squads.
The opposite defensive end, Terrance Bush (Jr., 6-2, 252), was a walk-on who nabbed a scholarship after a stellar camp. Bush showed athleticism in space as an edge setter, while displaying solid rush skills as well. Bush didn’t gain much penetration against Tennessee (three tackles), and still has to prove he can hold his own on a consistent basis after appearing in six games all of last season.
On the interior, former starter Zach Colvin (Sr., 6-3, 293) returns after missing all of last year with a vocal chord issue (in essence, he had to re-teach himself how to breathe). Colvin was effective in 2013, stout in the gaps and adept at dissecting opposing blockers, and he looks to have regained form after a year off. But, like the two ends, he has to step up when the lights come on. He disappeared at times against UT, but he did record the Falcons’ lone sack, one of his two tackles on the day.
Finally, the lone returning starter: Nose tackle Taylor Royster (Sr., 5-10, 260). Royster entered the program sans scholarship, but his blue-collar work ethic and on-field prowess quickly won over the staff. Last season, Royster, who fires off the line and has a knack for busting up backfields despite his size, racked up 41 tackles; a sack; an interception; 5.5 tackles for loss; and four fumble recoveries. Royster is athletic enough to make plays up and down the line, while he clearly possesses a nose for the ball. He had XX tackles last week.
Since Bowling Green will be taking on a foe with larger offensive linemen, however, the Falcons may rotate in some of their bigger defensive tackles. Neither Isaiah Lunsford (6-3, 300) nor Mike Minns (Jr., 5-10, 327) are quick or athletic, but they take up space and plug gaps. Expect to see them enter on third-and-short situations.
The Falcons may have taken a hit on the line, but they’ll feel it more at the linebacker position. Bowling Green lost its two defensive studs from last year, both of whom are now in NFL camps, leaving gaping holes from both a pass-rushing and run-defending standpoint. Moreover, BGSU’s newcomers saw little meaningful action in 2014, so they’re basically learning on the fly. Not surprisingly, the unit had difficulties wrapping up against Tennessee, allowing the Vols to rush for 399 yards.
One outside linebacker slot is manned by a former quarterback who moved positions before last year. Austin Valdez (Sr., 6-0, 225) appeared in 13 games and recorded 20 tackles, flashing some potential every now and again. But he still has a ways to go in terms of fundamentals, reads and the like. Last week he had 13 tackles and a tackle for loss, but committed a few mental errors that allowed the Vols to rip off long gains.
The middle linebacker, Nate Locke (Sr., 5-11, 226), started four games last season and racked up 30 tackles. He’s not great in coverage, nor is he a sideline-to-sideline defender, but Locke has above-average awareness and is typically in position to make plays in the box. Against the Volunteers, Locke --who actually did not start the game and may be sitting second on the depth chart for Week 2 -- had four tackles.
In passing situations, Locke can be a liability, so the Falcons rotate in Aaron Banks (Sr., 6-2, 239). Banks has more pure foot speed and looser hips, allowing him to pick up receivers and tight ends who cross his face. That said, he’s not as good a run defender or signal caller, thus he hasn’t claimed the starting job.
The second outside backer, James Sanford (Jr., 6-1, 196), is the leading returning tackler from 2014. A nine-game starter, Sanford had 71 stops, 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. A former safety, Sanford covers well in space; can rush the passer; and excels at open-field tackling. Strength and power are issues, however, and he could have trouble fighting through blocks against FBS foes. Last week he had five tackles in an unspectacular effort against UT.
Rotating in at outside linebacker is running back Travis Greene’s brother, Trenton Greene (Sr., 5-9, 213), who earned a Week 1 start. A former walk-on who earned a scholarship this summer, Trenton Greene may be the strongest Falcon, pound for pound, on the team. He’s a true thumper, but Greene’s footwork and form tend to lapse at times. He has 12 tackles against Tennessee, however, so Greene probably earned himself another start against Maryland.
Another rotational outside backer, Nilijah Ballew (So., 6-0, 210), has some promise too. He originally committed to Louisville out of high school but transferred to Bowling Green after Bobby Petrino took over the Cardinals. Ballew, a former safety, is an exciting player who could very well end up starting at some point this season.
Yet another unit with three new starters. Of course, the Falcons did surrender almost 300 passing yards per game in 2014, so maybe some fresh faces will do them good.
At corner, Darrell Hunter (Sr., 5-9, 178) started eight games last season, but lost the gig due to injuries and ineffectiveness. He’s not very big and has coverage miscues from time to time. Hunter did perform well enough during camp and is expected to hold up against MAC competition, but FBS squads will likely pick on him. Last week, he recorded four tackles and a pass breakup against Tennessee, but was beaten downfield on a couple plays.
The second corner, Clint Stephens (So., 5-10, 182), started as a freshman and had four interceptions. The team’s No. 1 defensive back, Stephens is fleet-footed, loose, opportunistic and physical at the line. He’s still working on his fundamentals and reads, however, so he may surrender a big play on occasion. Stephens had seven tackles in the UT game.
At safety, Eilar Hardy (Gr., 6-0, 188) is expected to lead the secondary after transferring from Notre Dame. A graduate student with loads of experience, Hardy has played extensively on a national stage, and therefore the staff is counting on him to step up in a major way. A hard-hitting, in-the-box safety, Hardy hasn’t proven himself at BGSU yet, however, so the jury is out on just how good he’ll be. Hardy racked up nine tackles against Tennessee.
Free safety Dernard Turner (Sr., 6-0, 191), meanwhile, started three times in 2014, tallying 48 tackles. A heady, rangy defender, Turner looked the part in fall camp, picking up receivers and coming up to make tackles. But can he consistently offer over-the-top help, or run with elite wideouts downfield? It remains to be seen. Last week, Turner had four tackles and a tackle for loss, but was exposed by the Vols’ deep threats.
Bowling Green will use a nickel back once in awhile, the spot figuring to go to former safety Isaiah Gourdine (Jr., 6-2, 196). Gourdine’s a good athlete with size, but has had coverage issues in the past.
Meanwhile, cornerback Alfonso Mack (Jr., 5-11, 178) may fill the dime role after showing out this summer. Mack could eventually rise up the depth chart if he continues to perform.
The backup safeties, Ben Hale (So., 6-2, 197) and Jack Walz (Fr., 5-10, 190), have promise but are still developing.
BGSU actually has a pretty special special teams, starting with its kicker. Tyler Tate (Sr., 6-0, 181) has a puncher’s chance at the NFL next year given his potent and fairly accurate right leg. He’s on the Lou Groza Watch List after connecting on 23-of-29 attempts last season, including a 52 yarder. Tate set the school record for field goals made in 2014, and has the opportunity to become Bowling Green’s all-time points leader, overtaking Shaun Suisham (Pittsburgh Steelers). In Week 1, Tate converted 3-of-4 attempts, including a long of 40 yards. It should be noted that one of his attempts was blocked.
The punter, Joseph Davidson (So., 6-7, 222), actually moved to receiver before last season due to his size and soft hands, but it didn’t work out well. Thus, he reverted to special teams duties, his powerful leg on full display (43 yards per boot last year). Davidson has had some accuracy problems, but if he irons those out, could be one of the MAC’s most effective punters in 2015. Davidson averaged 48.7 yards on six boots in the Tennessee bout.
As far as the return game is concerned, Ryan Burbrink handles punts and Clint Stephens kicks.
The former isn’t exactly a 4.4 burner, but he’s opportunistic with above-average field vision. Burbrink has returned a punt for a touchdown in each of the last two seasons. He also makes sound decisions and possesses shore hands, which is the primary reason he’s back there. (BGSU doesn’t need to bust out long punt returns with an offense that moves downfield in a hurry). Burbrink had two returns, averaging 11.5 yards, last week.
Stephens is faster than Burbrink and had a 96-yard touchdown in 2014, the longest in school history. He averaged 24 yards per bring back last year, and recorded two returns for 42 yards against Tennessee.