John Wagner covers Bowling Green for the Toledo Blade, and took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about the Falcons. You can read John's work at The Toledo Blade and follow him on Twitter @jwagnerblade.
Steve Nitz: First off, how has Dino Babers' offense progressed with it being the first year of the new system?
John Wagner: It has been a work in progress. The development was slowed considerably when QB Matt Johnson was hurt in the opener at Western Kentucky. The Falcons started working faster offensively (and that's the key to this offense: Tempo. Namely, high tempo) in the middle of the season, but starting with the Western Michigan game the offense has slowed down.
In recent games the running game has been the focus (because the games were played in high wind and cold weather), but we may see a return to more passing in the warmth and windlessness of Ford Field. At any rate, the number of run or pass plays isn't the key; the key is the speed at which the Falcons are able to run plays. If they can move at a high rate (roughly 15-17 seconds between plays), the offense is more successful.
Nitz: Babers took over for Dave Clawson, who took the Wake Forest job after beating NIU in Detroit last year. Were you surprised to see Clawson take that job (arguably one of the worst power five jobs in the country), considering the talent he had coming back in Bowling Green?
Wagner: No, I wasn't. I can't speak for Clawson's reasoning for taking the job, but there were factors that worked in his favor. First, he received a substantial pay raise (from roughly $300,000 to roughly $2 million per year, I am told). Second, he is a smart coach who specializes in rebuilds, especially at private schools with high academic standards and low football expectations, which describes Wake Forest pretty well. And third, while BG has a lot of players back, there's never a guarantee that a better job would arise had he stayed with this team. You strike while the iron is hot, because it may cool off – and never get hot again.
Nitz: Matt Johnson, last year's starting quarterback, has missed basically the entire season with a hip injury. What do the Falcons really miss when he's not in the lineup?
Wagner: His experience is one thing, and not a small thing – even though he is new to this offense, too. But he has experience making plays and leading a team to a successful result, and there's no substitute for that. But I think the biggest difference between Johnson and his replacement, James Knapke, has been Johnson's ability to improvise. Johnson can make plays with his legs, and that's not Knapke's strength at all. Also, Johnson is a guy who can turn a broken play into a touchdown, and very few quarterbacks have that ability.
Nitz: What do the Falcons do well on defense? Any certain player fans should watch out for?
Wagner: Up until the loss to Ball State, the Falcons had done a good job of forcing turnovers. The BG defense leads the MAC in 27 turnovers forced, and that's the main reason the Falcons turnover margin is so high (plus-nine, tied for second-best in the league). The phrase "bend but don't break" has applied to the Falcons, as they have given up yards in bunches but until the loss to the Cardinals had not given up many points. Bowling Green will give up yardage, though; the Falcons allow nearly 500 yards of total offense per game. That number has gone down recently, but BG still ranks next-to-last in the MAC in yards allowed per game.
As for players to watch on defense, the Falcons have some talented ends in Bryan Thomas (among the MAC's tackle-for-loss leaders), Charlie Walker and Kendall Montgomery (a freak athlete with a knack for big plays). The linebackers are Gabe Martin, who leads the MAC in tackles for loss, and D.J. Lynch, who is extremely strong against the run. While true freshman Nick Johnson ranks among the league leaders in interceptions (with five), the leaders in the secondary are safeties Brian Sutton and Ryland Ward.
And here's a disturbing fact for BG fans: Thomas, Walker, Montgomery, Martin, Lynch, Sutton and Ward are ALL seniors.
Nitz: NIU opened up as a 5.5-point favorite. What does Bowling Green have to do to beat the Huskies? Care to give a score prediction?
Wagner: I don't do predictions ... primarily because I'm usually wrong. But to beat the Huskies, BG will have to win all three phases of the game. The offense is built on taking advantage of defensive mistakes, whether it's a mis-alignment, a missed tackle, or a misread. The Falcons need to run the ball well, and they need to be successful when they throw the ball downfield. BG has taken a LOT of downfield shots in recent games and had little to show for it.
The defense, when it is successful, has done good things on third downs (to get off the field) and has created turnovers. BG wins have been built on defensive turnovers, even if they don't lead to points.
And BG needs to have something good happen on special teams. The areas where the Falcons have been best have been on punt coverage (freshman Joe Davidson has been surprisingly good), punt returns (BG leads MAC in that category and has two TDs), and field-goal kicking (Tyler Tate has been extremely impressive this year). The Falcons need to win those areas to give themselves a good chance to win.
– Steve Nitz, firstname.lastname@example.org, @SNitz_DDC
David Drew covers Western Michigan for the Kalamazoo Gazette/Mlive.com, and took some time out of his schedule to answer some questions about the Broncos. You can read his work at Mlive, and follow him on Twitter @Drew_on_WMU.
Steve Nitz: First off, everyone expected the Broncos to be improved this year, but how surprised are you by their 8-3 record?
David Drew: I thought the Broncos would be better. How much better? I predicted a 3-9 season. Not only is this team winning, but it’s winning big. WMU has much more talent on offense with playmakers like receivers Darius Phillips and Daniel Braverman to go along with Corey Davis, who is having a better season than his MAC Freshman of the Year campaign last season. This offense has become dynamic and defenses have to pick their poison with it. It’s hard to truly shut down all aspects of the offense, especially with quarterback Zach Terrell completing 70 percent of his passes this season. Defensively, WMU’s biggest improvement is in the front seven. WMU recorded just seven sacks last year and the Broncos have 22 entering this week. Quarterback pressure has allowed a talented secondary to make plays. I think the biggest underlying reason why WMU has turned it around is because of the team chemistry. Fleck said he thought he had a divided locker room last year with some players having their own agendas. Returning players have told me the same thing. This year, the chemistry is noticeable. They always seem to be upbeat, even after three losses.
Nitz: What type of a back is Jarvion Franklin? How do the Broncos utilize him in the running game?
Drew: He’s a physical back who loves contact, but he’s doing a better job of not searching it out as much as he used to. He also has very quick feet and continues to make better decisions on when to hit a hole and when to cut back. He also has sneaky speed for his size (6-1, 220). I don’t think opposing defenses have respected his speed enough. In the open field he’s hard to catch and between the tackles he rarely loses a yard. He has a lot to learn and improve on, from pass blocking to hitting the right holes, but he’s going to be a special player for years to come at WMU.
Nitz: P.J. Fleck has done a great job turning the program around. Any chance he gets a bigger job after the season?
Drew: Fleck has a 9-14 record at WMU. His biggest wins are Bowling Green and Central Michigan. There is always a chance he leaves, but I don’t see it happening after this season. This turnaround has been incredible, but in the big picture he hasn’t hit a lot of milestones. He’s 0-2 against Toledo and 0-1 against NIU entering this week. I think Fleck loves the challenges at WMU. I think he sees this as a project. If he continues to have success and wins the big games it’s only going to help his resume, which already boasts of his incredible recruiting skills. I think this conversation has the potential to be much more serious after successful 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Nitz: How has fan support been at Waldo Stadium? What kind of crowd do you expect Friday?
Drew: A lot of people complain among the fan base that WMU doesn’t fill Waldo Stadium, but in reality the Broncos get decent fan support. With Michigan State, Michigan and Notre Dame all within an hour-and-a-half away, I think WMU does a nice job of getting butts in seats. WMU is averaging 16,732 fans per home game, which ranks somewhere in the middle of the MAC. However, Friday could be a tough draw for WMU. I’d be surprised to see 10,000 people actually show up.
Nitz: Western Michigan opened as a 7-point favorite. Who do you see winning and why?
Drew: This is tough. NIU is the king of the mountain and has a “been there, done that” mentality that WMU doesn’t have. However, I think the Broncos are the better team because they are more dangerous offensively. Like most teams, I think the Huskies will look to control the line of scrimmage to limit Franklin and the jet sweep WMU likes to use, but I think Zach Terrell has a good day passing and WMU wins 31-27.
– Steve Nitz, email@example.com, @SNitz_DDC
Back in October, I wrote about former NIU football players Jordan Delegal and Keith Otis and their project, The Doghouse, a food truck they hope to bring to DeKalb, which would sell a variety of items.
Delegal is a former Huskie linebacker who had 82 tackles on the team's 2011 MAC championship team. Otis was a starting offensive tackle.
I spoke with Delegal this week. The group started a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise money for the project. They were out at NIU's “The Yard” tailgate area for a home game this season, and Delegal and Co. are raising money to buy the truck, which would sell a variety of gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches in additon to other items. Delegal said they plan on bringing the truck to events around campus, and use it throughout the Chicagoland area.
The goal was to raise $20,000, and they are only about $2,500 away from the goal. The Kickstarter campaign ends Tuesday, and earier this week The Doghouse recently received a $10,000 contribution.
“We're close, we're not there just yet,” Delegal said. “We want to not just meet but exceed the goals.”
Delegal said they've gotten a lot of support from NIU alumni. One reason Delegal wanted to start the Doghouse was to provide opportunities for NIU students, and help them take an initiative of their own.
“Whatever way we can help the university, because they've helped us tremendously, is what we want to do,” Delegal said. “We are doing this for the right reasons. We want to help students, we want to help DeKalb and help the place that helped us.”
Bowl selections are just a little over two weeks away. That being said, I've done some forecasting and decided to put together bowl projections for the Mid-American Conference.
Here's an update on how the selection process works – the GoDaddy Bowl in Mobile has the first selection among MAC teams. However, the bowl is not required to pick the MAC champion. After the GoDaddy, the MAC has spots in the Boca Raton, Famous Idaho Potato, Camellia and Bahamas Bowls.
The MAC will work with the opposing conferences and ESPN to determine the best fits and match ups. So, there's plenty of things that can happen.
Here's what I see at this point.
GoDaddy (Mobile, Alabama vs. Sun Belt): Northern Illinois vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Boca Raton (Boca Raton, Florida vs. C-USA): Bowling Green vs. Rice
Famous Idaho Potato (Boise, Idaho vs. Mountain West): Nevada vs. Toledo
Camellia (Montgomery, Alabama vs. Sun Belt): Western Michigan vs. South Alabama
Bahamas (Nassau, Bahamas vs. C-USA): Central Michigan vs. UAB
NIU is the current favorite to win the MAC title (if they win the MAC West, they should be 10-point favorites against Bowling Green), and I would guess the GoDaddy will take the MAC champion.
The Sun Belt's top team right now, Georgia Southern, is ineligible for a bowl as its in its first season of FBS. The Sun Belt's GoDaddy representative will most likely be either UL-Lafayette or Arkansas State. I think the Rajin' Cajuns would end up in Mobile, as they were in the New Orleans Bowl (the league's other top bowl slot) last year.
There's some interesting possibilities out there. Could the MAC try and pair a potential 10-win NIU team against Marshall (if it doesn't get the Group of Five bid) in Boca Raton or the Bahamas? What about a matchup between the Huskies and Colorado State or Boise State in Boise? Would NIU/MAC want any part of playing the Broncos on the road?
It will also be interesting to see how much of a disaster the Bahamas Bowl is. My guess is the game won't be around for more than a few years.
– Steve Nitz, firstname.lastname@example.org, @SNitz_DDC