Ohio State is separated from Week 1 opponent Bowling Green by hardly more than 100 miles as the crow flies, but familiarity will be in short supply when the in-state foes meet Saturday in Columbus.
Aside from the fact that the two teams haven’t played each other since 2006, it’s also worth noting that the Buckeyes are replacing 16 starters from 2015 and the Falcons lost their head coach, their quarterback, their running back and most of the receiving corps.
To help make sense of the matchup, we’ve turned to John Wagner of the Toledo Blade to get the Bowling Green point of view. You can follow him on Twitter at @jwagnerblade and you can read his work here as well as in links included below.
Let’s get started.
Q. Ohio State will be without 16 starters from last year, but Bowling Green lost its head coach. What should OSU fans know about new Falcons coach Mike Jinks?
Wagner: Mike Jinks spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at Texas Tech, where he was part of the staff running the “Air Raid” offense of Kliff Kingsbury. That was part of the allure of bringing him to Bowling Green. Last season the Falcons ran a version of the Baylor offense under coach Dino Babers, who now is the head coach at Syracuse. Jinks was hired to bring some offensive stability.
Jinks has never been a head coach, which has led to some doubts entering this season. He had been a long-time head coach at the high school level in Texas. That’s why there were rumors he would become the head coach at UTSA or North Texas before he took the BG job. Even Jinks admits that, until we tee it up, the jury is still out.
Q. Similarly, what can you tell us about the replacements for quarterback Matt Johnson, running back Travis Greene and other key offensive players?
Wagner: The replacement for Johnson, who threw for nearly 5,000 yards last season, is senior James Knapke. Knapke started every game in 2014 after Johnson was injured in the opener and, while not as successful as Johnson, he had his moments, including earning MVP honors of the 2014 Camellia Bowl.
Greene will be replaced by a posse of players, including his top backup last season in senior Fred Coppet, who ran for 825 yards and five TDs. Donovan Wilson is a junior transfer from Georgia Tech who was a short-yardage back last year (36 carries, 7 touchdowns) but will probably play a bigger role this fall. And Josh Cleveland is a small, speedy JUCO transfer who can provide a change-of-pace.
At receiver? Oy vey. Five of last year’s top six are gone. The leading returnee is senior Ronnie Moore (72 catches, 951 yards, 6 touchdowns), who combines toughness and speed to be a very dangerous receiver. Beyond that, though, there are a lot of unknowns. Junior Teo Redding and sophomores Scott Miller and Deric Phouthavong will be asked to step up, as will junior college transfer Vanel Dossous. I expect freshman Marquis Zimmerman also to make a splash.
Q. Last year was yet another successful season for the Falcons. How does this year’s squad compare?
Wagner: The key group of returnees on offense are the linemen, who return a lot of experience, even with the loss of senior Jacob Bennett to a knee injury. It’s a junior- and senior-laden group that will really have to step up as the skill-position players get their feet on the ground.
The key group of returnees on defense are at linebacker, where two All-MAC players return in senior Trenton Greene and junior Austin Valdez. The secondary will be young, while the defensive line is older and fairly deep but not very experienced. I think the D-line will be critical if the Falcons want to have a strong defense this fall.
Read some of Wagner’s work on Bowling Green here:
And we’re back.
Q. In what areas or at what position does Bowling Green have a chance to generate mismatches that create success and cause problems for Ohio State?
Wagner: Offensively, the Air Raid is created to make mismatches in the receiver corps all around the field. We’ll have to see if Bowling Green’s young corps of receivers is up to the task of making those mismatches and taking advantage of them.
Defensively, I think it falls on the defensive line to play well enough to keep Valdez and Greene unblocked. Those two will make a ton of tackles if given the opportunity. The line also needs to create some pressure so that a young secondary does not have to cover for a long time. If they do, that could get ugly.
Q. What are the expectations around the program both for this game and the season as a whole?
Wagner: There’s been a lot of talk about Bowling Green’s game against Ohio State in 2003, a game in which the Falcons gave the Buckeyes quite a battle before falling. That was a veteran team that was playing a scheme it knew — this was one year after Urban Meyer left for Utah, but a lot of coaches remained. In other words, I think last year’s team would have presented a real obstacle. Remember, that team beat both Purdue and Maryland. Yes, lower-level Big Ten teams, but Big Ten teams nonetheless.
As for this season, Bowling Green has won the MAC’s East Division title each of the past three seasons and is capable of making it four in a row. The schedule features road games against its two toughest East opponents, Ohio and Akron, as well as tough West Division road games at Northern Illinois and Toledo. But the Falcons expect to be competitive for an East title and MAC championship game bid as well as a fifth straight bowl bid.
Q. What’s your prediction?
Wagner: Man, I hate making predictions that involve a score. Let me try to wolverine — Oops, I mean weasel — out of that with a few other predictions: 1. If Bowling Green can stay close early, I think they will stay close throughout. That early burst of confidence especially could help the offense as it replaces a lot of major figures from last year. 2. Line play on both sides of the ball will be the key. The offensive line is its strength. If that group struggles, the offense will struggle. And if Bowling Green’s defensive line can play well enough to allow the linebackers to make plays while the backs get their bearings, that would be extremely helpful. 3. The Falcons have spent a ton of time on special teams, both in the spring and the fall. Last year they were average at best on special teams, so that work will need to pay off to keep the Falcons in the game. Especially keep an eye on punter Joe Davidson, who is outstanding, and the kickers, who have struggled this fall.
In short, I think Ohio State will win … and win handily. Can Bowling Green stay competitive? And can they come out of the game healthy? If the answers to those two questions are both “yes,” I would consider the game a win for the Falcons.