Meet Bowling Green, a team looking to ride momentum to a win over MSU
At first glance, there are some notable similarities between MSU and Bowling Green.
Both the Spartans and Falcons struggled in 2016, there’s no doubt about that. MSU infamously finished with a 3-9 record, easily head coach Mark Dantonio’s worst season. Bowling Green mustered just one more win in the MAC, amassing a 4-8 mark.
Except that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Falcons won their last three games of the season, concluding head coach Mike Jinks’ first season at the helm with a bang.
“(The three-game winning streak) was a great confidence boost, not just for the kids, but for the coaches as well,” Jinks said Monday. “I think somewhere during that journey we kind of found our identity, who we wanted to be and what fits our particular skillset at this moment in time.”
Elsewhere, both teams head into the 2017 with a redshirt sophomore quarterback under center as the de facto starter. And that’s where the comparisons end there too.
MSU’s Brian Lewerke comes into the season with limited experience on the actual field, evidenced by his two career starts. His redshirt freshman campaign was shortened due to a season-ending broken tibia against Michigan.
But Lewerke has been named MSU’s starter for months now and Dantonio said he’s impressed in that role.
“The way he’s handled (being named starter), he’s shown a lot of growth as a person,” Dantonio said at his weekly press conference. “He’s responded and shown a lot in his leadership abilities.”
On the flipside, there’s Bowling Green’s James Morgan. The 6-foot-5 signal-caller played in all 12 games for the Falcons in 2016, starting seven of them. His 16 touchdowns were the most ever by a freshman quarterback in Bowling Green history.
Despite being in the same class and having the same eligibility, Morgan brings in far more game experience than Lewerke.
“They have an outstanding quarterback in Morgan, threw for over 2,000 yards,” Dantonio said. “He’s a big guy, he throws it well, operates well in the system. And I think they have a system that’s very well tied together.”
And around Morgan, he has plenty of offensive weapons. Wideout Scott Miller was a first-team All-MAC selection, collecting 74 catches for 968 yards and 10 touchdowns. On the ground, talented running backs Donovan Wilson and Josh Cleveland offer the Falcons a plethora of options.
However, arguably Bowling Green’s biggest strength is on the special teams. Just a few weeks ago, a walk-on kicker was awarded a scholarship after nailing a 53-yard field goal attempt.
The punter isn’t shabby either. Joseph Davidson was often a game-changer for the Falcons, averaging 45.8 yards per punt, a mark that was fifth in the nation.
The All-MAC selection was one of the leaders of a strong Bowling Green special teams unit. The Falcons were first in the nation in kick coverage, holding the foe to 15.1 yards per return. On punt return defense, they were 28th overall, yielding just 5.2 yards per return.
As MSU released its depth chart Tuesday, redshirt sophomore Darrell Stewart Jr. was atop the list as the kick and punt returner. Despite Bowling Green’s stats, Stewart said he’s ready for whatever’s thrown, or in this case, kicked at him.
“We treat everybody really the same,” Stewart said. “We come out here and just practice hard every day. I heard (Davidson’s) a good punter, but we’ve got good coaches there that disguise other great things around other people, so I feel like I’m very confident.”
With Jinks entering his second season at Bowling Green, Dantonio said it’s a key year as it brings continuity to the program. And just like any MAC team looking for the upset win over a "Power-5" opponent, the Falcons will be ready.
“I think that he has a belief in his players and I think his players have a belief in what they’re doing there,” Dantonio said. “You can see that they play hard and they’ll come here, just like any other team from the Mid-American Conference, ready to show out.”