Two weeks ago, the Bowling Green State University Falcons pulled an upset heard ‘round the college football world.
Purdue, picked as a dark horse candidate for the Big Ten Championship and a BCS Bowl berth, found itself on the short end of a 27-26 score in their own stadium.
It was Bowing Green's first win over a ranked opponent since 1972.
Trailing 24-20, Bowling Green quarterback Josh Harris and the Falcon offense received the ball with just minutes remaining in regulation. They calmly proceeded to march down the field, cutting a swatch through the Boilermaker defense like soldier ants in the South American jungle. Luck appeared to have run out on the upstart underdogs in Ross-Ade Stadium when they faced a 4th and 14 from the 32, but like the 2002 Buckeyes, Bowling Green converted for a touchdown.
Wide receiver Charles Sharon, who caught the pass and wrestled the ball away amid 4 Purdue defenders said, "This win gives us a lot of confidence, knowing we can beat a Big Ten team."
This week, the Big Ten team they are seeking to defeat will be defending national champion, Ohio State University. To pull it off, Bowling Green will need to play solid defense.
The Bowling Green Defense
Isn't it the Bowling Green offense that has been getting all of the attention? Isn't it the reason for their recent upswing under up and coming coach Urban Meyer who has since left to coach at Utah?
"I think the quiet champion of the Bowling Green team is their defense," commented Buckeye coach Jim Tressel this week. "They do a tremendous job and they don't make many mistakes. I guess they have won six straight games against BCS teams and they've held five of them under 100 yards rushing. They exist in an environment where everybody is talking about their offense. But their defense is outstanding as well."
Granted, the numbers are likely inflated when one considers that the five previous BCS teams they have defeated have a combined record of 19-38 and included Temple, Kansas, and Northwestern. Still, the win against Purdue, on the road, is proof that the Falcons have reached the point that they can confound even the better teams in a BCS league on any given Saturday. Their defense has limited the opposition to under 30 points every time except for one (Northwestern score 42 in a losing effort), while their offense has scorched the scoreboard for 37.
Bowling Green head coach Gregg Brandon believes his squad has a chance, but they must play well defensively; "Our defensive stats compare to theirs, which is encouraging. Our defense has been holding up. Now, I know we have played two NCAA Division I-AA opponents. We're gonna have to find out if our defense can hold up again against an Ohio State, like we did at Purdue."
And what do the Ohio State players believe?
Senior Ben Hartsock appears to be a believer.
"This isn't a subpar team. They are a strong team in the MAC. They showed that against Purdue. They are experienced, especially in the secondary."
The Defensive Personnel
The most important returning Falcon this season was not a player but a coach. When Urban Meyer departed for greener pastures in Utah, he left behind not only his offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon, but also his highly thought of defensive coordinator Tim Beckman. Beckman's defenses have performed consistently above and beyond the call of duty. Despite the loss of eight starters from the 2001 unit, the 2002 BGSU defense still finished 4th in the Mid American Conference in both total defense and scoring defense. Further, the aggressive nature of his defenses has resulted in positive ratios in turnovers each of the past two seasons for a +26 total.
The defensive line is a position stocked with veterans for the Falcons. Though they lost two starters from their 2002 squad, the remaining 6 on the two deep return. Starting will be redshirt sophomore Mitchell Crossley (DE 6'3", 250), redshirt sophomore Mike Thaler (DT 6'1", 280), sophomore Matt Leininger (DT 6'3", 281), and freshman Devon Parks (DE 6'3", 233). As a unit, the first string has 27 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and one sack. However, do not expect this group to play the entire game. BGSU plays multiple linemen much like Ohio State. In fact, the second string line's statistics rival those of the starters with 17 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. Because of their ability to rotate linemen seemingly without significant drop off, expect the Falcons to use their quickness and depth to try and pressure the Buckeye quarterback throughout the day.
At linebacker, the Falcons will start redshirt junior Jovon Burkes (MLB 6'1", 234), 5th year senior Mitch Hewitt (WLB 6'1", 213), and junior Daniel Sayles (SLB 5'11, 213). Hewitt is currently second on the team with 20 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 3 passes broken up, one quarterback hurry, and a fumble recovery. As can be inferred from the impressive stat line, he was considered their best linebacker in 2002 and can be a one man wrecking crew. Sayles is not too far behind with 18 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and 1 fumble recovery so far this season. Jovon Burkes is the final starter and will be playing the middle position. With a strong defensive line in front of them and an aggressive scheme, the linebacking corps will be active. Not only will they seek to stuff the run but with a new starter taking signals, they will seek to rattle McMullen early.
Despite the obvious abilities of the defensive line and linebackers, the secondary is probably the best of the three units. While last season did not proceed as planned due to injuries, that will help the Falcons in 2003 since they lost only one of the top 8 in the depth chart. Five of the top eight and three of the top four tacklers thus far are defensive backs. Cornerback Keon Newsome, a junior, has 30 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles, 1 quarterback hurry, and one pass break up has been especially impressive. Both safeties, Michael Malone and Jason Morton, have 18 tackles each. The other starting cornerback, Janssen Patton, has 7 tackles and 2 passes broken up. Cornerback Tim Arnold and safety T.J. Carswell have also seen extensive minutes and will likely see the field again on Saturday.
How it all fits together
The Falcons play an aggressive style of defense and have been successful with it. They will expect nothing less against Ohio State's offense, which is wheezing and gasping for breath like a chain smoker.
The first thing Tim Beckman and his defensive staff will try to do is force Ohio State to become one dimensional by denying them yards on the ground. While last year that might have been easier said than done, in its first three games, only Buckeye quarterback Craig Krenzel has actually been able to gain rushing yardage consistently, and he looks to be out for the week with an injury to his throwing arm. BGSU defensive linemen will seek to plug all gaps, and those that they cannot seal off – the linebackers will charge into headlong. Blitzes should be expected early and often as these not only send defensive players through most gaps to overload any run blocking, but they also rattle a quarterback and provide a stiff pass rush.
If successful in shutting down the Ohio State rushing attack (which currently is 93rd in the nation and averaging a measly 102 yards per game), then Bowling Green defenders will go to work on Scott McMullen. Safety and cornerback blitzes are likely as evidenced by the multiple tackles for loss by Newson and Malone. The defensive linemen will seek to collapse the pocket quickly and hurry McMullen into poor decisions, which will allow the linebackers and cornerbacks in coverage to make interceptions.
What will Happen?
Three weeks ago, I would have said that though Bowling Green State University has made great strides in their football program, they could not possibly upset Ohio State. Two weeks of putrid rushing statistics, missed holes, collapsed holes, whiffed blocks, and an injured starting quarterback later – anything is possible.
Bowling Green believes they can win this game.
Head coach Gregg Brandon was quoted, "I'm telling them this week that, 'Hey, we do have a chance to win, because you proved that you can play in a hostile environment, on the road against a nationally-ranked opponent with a great offense and a great defense. Now, you've got to do it again, but it isn't going to happen unless you have the week of preparation that we had before Purdue.' So, there is a level of maturity that has to occur with our players, as far as preparing for an opponent of Ohio State's caliber."
Maurice Hall and the Buckeyes expect them to believe no less. Hall pointed out, "We know they will definitely come in ready to play. This is a big game for them. They have worked hard to this point. We have to make sure we're ready to play."
The Buckeyes better be ready. If they are not, then they can kiss their national championship aspirations goodbye because Bowling Green can and will upset them in the Horseshoe.