The Falcons will again be scary good on offense, but their defense will be the difference between another 9-win season and something truly special. Bowling Green must manage significant improvement while replacing five starters.
One strong bright spot from last year: the BG defense forced 25 turnovers (14 interceptions and 11 recoveries of 20 forced fumbles), helping the team to a +15 turnover margin. Two interceptions and one fumble were returned for touchdowns. But safety Keon Newson, who had six interceptions and the two touchdown returns, is among the departed starters.
2004 by the numbers
Total defense: 391.9 yards allowed (No. 69 nationally)
Scoring defense: 23.5 points allowed (43)
Passing defense: 259.5 (104)
Passing efficiency: 116.1 (36)
Rushing defense: 132.4 (37)
Touchdowns allowed: 35 – 20 rushing, 15 passing
Third-down conversions allowed: 40 percent, 74 of 184
Turnover margin: +15 (3)
Net punting: 33.3 (88)
Kick coverage: 19.3 per return
Punt coverage: 8.2 per return
Defensive line analysis
The Falcons have significant starting experience to make up for at safety and linebacker, but the defensive line has four veteran starters. Only one starter departs from 2004 and the replacement is senior defensive tackle Monte Cooley, a fairly athletic 6-foot-2, 276-pounder, who has played in all 26 games the past two seasons. He has accumulated 71 tackles, 9.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks in that span.
Fifth-year senior nose guard Mike Thaler is starting for the third consecutive season. He has played in 36 of 38 games the past three years and enters 2005 with 104 career tackles, including 46 solo (42 the past two seasons). At 6-1, 281, Thaler has been a disruptive force, with 11 quarterback hurries as a sophomore and 4.5 sacks over the past two years.
Junior defensive ends Brad Williams (6-3, 259) and Devon Parks (6-3, 239) are also returning starters. They combined for 71 tackles, 9.5 for loss and five sacks last season.
This corps is capable, but the Falcons need to put more pressure on the quarterback after garnering just 23 sacks last year. BG's top reserve is sophomore end Brandon Mack (6-3, 245), who played in seven games last year, with five tackles and a fumble recovery. Junior defensive tackle Thomas Smith (6-0, 269) and a quintet of redshirt freshmen will compete for spots in the rotation: tackles Brandon Curtis (6-2, 280), Nicholas Davis (6-3, 280) and Josh Waldman (6-1, 270) and ends Joe Schaefer (6-4, 250) and Don Sprenkel (6-2, 230).
The one returning starter is a good all-around player in will ‘backer Teddy Piepkow (6-1, 228). He has started 20 games the past two seasons, and played in all 26. After recording 77 tackles (39 solo), 5.5 for loss and three sacks as a sophomore, Piepkow went 81-3-0 last year, with two interceptions. He will have to be a playmaker against the run and the pass while BG breaks in two new starters.
Piepkow, second on the Falcons in tackles last year, is the only returning player who was among the team's top four in that category in 2004. Gone is first-team All-MAC linebacker Jovon Burkes, who led the team with 91 tackles, and honorable mention All-MAC linebacker Daniel Sayles, who was fourth on the team with 67.
Replacing Burkes in the middle is senior Jamien Johnson (6-1, 232), who has played in 24 of 26 games the past two years with 39 tackles.
Fourth-year junior Terrel White (5-10, 232) is expected to fill out the starters at sam. He had three tackles in 11 games as a freshman, then had an impressive 41 stops as a reserve in 12 games last year, including nine in the opener against Oklahoma.
Reserve sam linebacker senior Lavelle Sharpe (5-11, 220) has played in 12 games the past two years. Fourth-year junior Jon Jakubowski (6-1, 217) will back up Piepkow on the weakside. He had seven tackles in seven games last year.
Rounding out the two-deep could be fifth-year senior Aaron Burkhart (6-1, 216) or sophomore Pete Winovich (6-3, 230). A three-year letter winner, Burkhart had five tackles in six games last year. Winovich played in all 12 games with nine tackles, primarily seeing playing time on special teams.
Bowling Green's pass defense ranking is not entirely indicative of the team's 2004 performance. The team's pass efficiency defense was solid, but with opponents throwing the ball as much as they did against the Falcons (467 attempts) it is tough not to give up substantial yardage. And BG's offense tended to put opposing teams in a big whole early (averaging 28.1 points in the first half alone), forcing teams to wing it around even more.
Still, the Falcons secondary could clean some things up, to put it mildly, and they need to do so without Newson, one of the top defensive playmakers in the MAC last year, and fellow departing safety T.J. Carswell. That tandem combined for 131 tackles a year ago.
But both starting corners return, including a solid playmaker in senior Jelani Jordan (5-10, 177), who had 15 pass breakup and two interceptions last year. He has started 20 games the past two years, with 148 tackles. In 32 career games, he has 29 pass breakups.
Opposite Jordan is another senior returning starter, Terrill Mayberry (5-11, 169). He has 22 games under his belt and he tallied 51 tackles, one interception and six tackles for loss last year.
A pair of seniors should step into the starting safety roles. Tim Arnold (5-9, 200) has played 29 games over three years, with 35 tackles. Mike Crumpler (5-11, 191) was a top reserve a year ago, with 38 tackles in 12 games, including one start. He played in all 12 games as a freshman and six games as a sophomore.
There is little established depth at safety, with fourth-year junior Will Myles (5-11, 200), third-year sophomore Bryan Jackson (5-11, 210) and redshirt freshmen Nate Waldron (5-11, 195) and Erique Dozier (6-1, 195) competing for playing time.
Bowling Green has decent depth at corner. Fifth-year senior John Nicholson (5-9, 190), a former Bolingbrook (Ill.) High School star, had 10 tackles in nine games a year ago. Senior Steve Simonton (5-10, 170) had four tackles in nine games last year. And fourth-year junior Van Johnson (6-1, 197) is an athletic former quarterback.
Matching up with Wisconsin
Sept. 3 will provide an intriguing measuring stick for Wisconsin's offense and Bowling Green's defense. For as bad as the Falcons were at stopping people last year, the Badgers were even worse at moving the ball consistently.
This should be a pretty good matchup for UW. If there was a consistent theme in BG's three losses last year, all road games coincidentally, it was an inability to stop the run. Against Oklahoma, Northern Illinois and Toledo, the Falcons allowed 243 rushing yards per game and 5.03 yards per carry. In their nine wins, they yielded just 95.6 per game and 2.95 per carry.
Bowling Green's front four is experienced and will match up with a Badger offensive line that will be breaking in three new starters. But UW's line should be an athletic, competent group and will be facing off with an undersized front seven.
This is not going to be a smash-mouth Badger running game, though. With the very notable exception of mauling fullback Matt Bernstein, and the possible exception of center Donovan Raiola, this is more of a tactical blocking group, despite its size. And featured back Brian Calhoun is more apt to outrun people than bowl them over. But UW should have a distinct advantage in the running game, which could wear down BG's defense and, more importantly, keep Falcons quarterback Omar Jacobs on the sideline.
As it was last season, though, the key for UW will be to find some semblance of a passing game. Otherwise BG will be able to sell out against the run and the 2005 UW offense will look suspiciously like 2004.
The Falcons have a hoard of veterans at corner, but with three seniors leading the way the Badgers will have an edge in this matchup as well.
Still at this point in the summer it appears unlikely that UW will be able to light up the scoreboard enough to keep pace with Jacobs and Co.