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Know Thy Opponent 2015: Bowling Green Falcons

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Purdue has struggled against the MAC, going 2-4 since Joe Tiller retired.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

An early season MAC-Big Ten game used to be schedule fodder for bowl eligibility. Almost every team in the Big Ten plays at least one MAC team every year. Some play two. When I was a kid it usually meant that Purdue was going to win on a gorgeous fall Saturday in front of a large crowd of high school bands invited explicitly for the purpose of making the stadium look full. Even though Purdue would be on its way to its normal 3-8 or 4-7 record for one Saturday we would look awesome in beating Ohio 33-10 or Eastern Michigan 49-3.

Those days are gone. The MAC is much, much better full of hungry athletes looking to beat up on the schools that passed them over. The Big Ten still wins most of the games, but the MAC generally gets 2-3 wins per season. As Purdue has demonstrated, the worst of the Big Ten is often worse than the best of the MAC. In fact, the MAC has beaten us up quite a bit in recent seasons:

2014: Central Michigan 38, Purdue 17

2013: Northern Illinois 55, Purdue 24 (worst Big Ten loss to a MAC team ever. Most points given up to a MAC team ever by a Big Ten team. Stadium record for opponent scoring until it was broken by Ohio State weeks later.)

2010: Toledo 31, Purdue 20

2009: Northern Illinois 28, Purdue 21

Yeah, it is bad. Purdue is just 2-4 against the MAC since Joe Tiller retired. By comparison, Tiller was 13-2 in his 12 seasons. He lost to Toledo 36-22 in his very first game at Purdue, then to our next opponent 27-26 in 2003.

2014 Record: 8-6, 5-4 MAC (Mac East Champions

Bowl Result: Beat South Alabama 33-28 in Camellia bowl

Blog Representation: Hustle Belt

Series with Purdue: Bowling Green leads 2-0

Last Season for the Falcons:

Yes, that is not a typo. All-time, Bowling Green is 2-0 against our Boilermakers. They won the first meeting 17-14 in 1972 over a Purdue team that went 6-5. 31 years later they repeated, winning 27-26 over Joe Tiller's most complete team to open the season. That was a memorable game where Bowling Green completed a late 4th and long pass for the win and took an intentional safety to run off the final 8 seconds. Purdue won its next six games, while Bowling Green was an impressive 11-3 with a bowl win.

Last year Bowling Green went to a third straight bowl game, but slipped from 10-4 and MAC champs to 8-6 overall. They were a good offensive team that had a pretty horrid defense. They lost to Western Michigan (who Purdue beat) and beat Indiana (the less said there, the better). While the defense got better, it gave up 59 points to Western Kentucky, 51 to Northern Illinois, 68 to Wisconsin, and 42 to Indiana.

Bowling Green Offense

The Falcons aren't the scoring machine that Marshall will be, but they are hardly the staggering unit that is Virginia Tech. When comparing the two they are closer to Marshall. They can get into shootouts and feel pretty comfortable, as wins over Indiana, Buffalo, and Massachusetts showed. The full SB Nation preview labeled them as the team to Bring MACtion back. If you're a Purdue fan this is not good, given the messes we have left on our own field the last two years against MAC teams.

There may be a bit of a battle at quarterback going into the season, as the Falcons basically have two starters. James Knapke was forced into the starting role as a sophomore last season and did not do poorly. He had over 3,100 yards passing and 15 touchdowns while completing 64% of his passes. One of his best games was against Indiana, when he threw for 395 yards and 3 scores in his second career start.

On the other hand, you have Matt Johnson, who will likely be the starter. He was injured last season in the opening loss to Western Kentucky, but still threw for 313 yards and a score. This came after a sophomore season where he threw for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions in 2013. He can also run a bit too with five rushing TDs and 238 yards on the ground.

Johnson's offensive line is impressive too. All five starters are back and combined to have 125 total starts in their careers. Alex Huettel was a Second Team all-MAC selection and Jacob Bennett gives them size at the tackle position. This is about as experienced as you can ask for from a college offensive line.

Johnson also has plenty of weapons to work with as skill players. Roger Lewis was excellent as a freshman with 73 receptions for 1,093 yards and 7 TDs. Ryan Burbrink (64-758-3), Ronnie Moore (56-690-5), and Gehrig Dieter (35-460-1) all had solid numbers last year and return. Dieter can be considered a player that got away from Purdue. He holds the NATIONAL record for high school receiving yards in a game with 437 from South Bend Washington HS, and was the 2010 Indiana Player of the Year. He started at SMU before transferring to Bowling Green after two seasons.

The running game is almost complete with Travis Greene (949 yards, 12 TDs) and Fred Coppet back. Basically, every major contributor on offense for Bowling Green returns from a unit that scored more than 30 points per game last year. They also get a better quarterback that was pretty successful before missing almost all of last season due to injury. Even the top reserves are all back.

Bowling Green Defense

If the bad news was the offense, the good news is the defense. It was pretty awful last year and won't be a lot better. Check out this line from the Bowling Green preview:

The defense was able to create negative plays against the run, and it forced its share of turnovers (nearly 2.5 per game). But despite an experienced secondary, opponents knew they could pass. Whatever aggression BGSU had, it tended to die out as a half unfolded -- BGSU ranked 120th in both second- and fourth-quarter S&P+. If you could keep the Falcons out of the backfield (and good offenses typically could), you could move the ball at will.

This is the type of defense that the Purdue offense needs to dominate if the Boilers are to turn any sort of corner this year. The offense was better at times last year, but shutting down against the likes of Indiana and Northwestern late in the season was shameful. Bowling Green returns very little pass rush and the Purdue front five will have a huge size advantage.

The run defense may struggle with only James Sanford back as the strongside linebacker among the starters. Gabe Martin had 18 tackles for loss in the middle last year, but he is gone. There is not a ton of experience in the middle with Sanford, so that can expose a weakness. All told, seven starters graduated from a defense that was not that good in the first place. There could be a ton of true freshmen playing by the time they come to Purdue.

There is at least one good player to build around in the secondary. Cornerback Nick Johnson had five interceptions and eight pass breakups in 2014, but he is the lone returning starter back there. There are a lot of seniors that have been career backups battling for starting roles.

Bowling Green Special Teams

The Falcons had a very good special teams unit last season. Tyler Tate was an impressive 18 of 22 on field goals while Joe Davidson averaged 42.5 yards per punt. Davidson had only three touchbacks too. Clint Stephens (kick returner) and Burbrink (punt returner) each had returns for touchdowns, giving Bowling Green a pair of dangerous return men.  Given Purdue's losses in this area, the return game is an advantage unless Frankie Williams is returning punts.

Game Outlook

The mark of a good Big Ten program is taking care of business at home against the MAC. There is so much historical crossover between the conferences that history shows good MAC teams are more than capable of beating bad Big Ten teams, and decent Big Ten teams should take advantage of their MACtion. Very rarely does an exceptionally good MAC team beat a very good Big Ten team like Bowling Green did to Purdue in 2003. Because of the geographical footprint this is always s big game for a MAC opponent, even when playing a really down Purdue program.

It is a testament to how far Purdue has fallen that beating a good MAC team would be a sign of improvement. This team is not as good as Northern Illinois two seasons ago, but it is still likely better than the same Central Michigan squad that kicked us around last September. If there is any hope of a bowl game in 2015 for Purdue it likely is kept alive by beating the Falcons. A third loss to a MAC team in three years at home, especially, if it comes in a lopsided blowout, would be devastating to a Purdue program that is already about as low as it can get.

Purdue needs to win this game. Losing to a good Marshall team on the road isn't bad. Losing to a major conference team like Virginia Tech isn't bad. Losing to another MAC team, especially if the other two losses happen, could be the beginning of the end for Hazell.

Prediction

I think we're going to see a shootout here. This is a very good, experienced offense but a terrible defense. Purdue has a shaky offense that has shown some promise, but its defense is a question mark. That could mean a lot of points in Ross-Ade. As long as Purdue can get a handful of stops it hopefully will be enough. Purdue 38, Bowling Green 31