Before every game, I ask a reporter who covers the Gophers upcoming opponent to give us a view from the opponent’s perspective.
I asked Michael Burwell from the Toledo Blade six questions about the Bowling Green Falcons.
Minnesota takes on Bowling Green in the Quick Lane Bowl on December 26th on ESPN.
Huge thanks to Michael for giving us his thoughts!
Follow Michael on Twitter: @Michael_Burwell
Follow Noel on Twitter: @N0elthompson
1. After finishing 6-7 overall in the 2022 season, Bowling Green had its first winning season this year for the first time since 2015. The Falcons finished 7-5 overall with a 5-3 record in the MAC. What were the expectations for this team heading into the 2023 season? In your opinion, did they meet or beat those expectations?
Bowling Green felt it had a really good chance to compete for a MAC championship, so the Falcons’ expectations heading into the 2023 season were pretty high. A couple of bad losses to Ohio and Miami (Ohio) to begin conference play hurt those chances, though. Bowling Green had arguably the toughest nonconference schedule in the MAC, but certainly made some statements against some really good teams. They dominated Georgia Tech in a 38-27 win on the road, gave No. 2 Michigan a scare in the first half in Ann Arbor, and nearly beat Liberty despite throwing five interceptions. With how challenging the schedule was this season, I believe a 7-5 record met expectations. The combined record of the five teams that beat the Falcons was 57-7 entering bowl season.
2. With NIL now having a huge influence and impact on college athletics, it seems like the transfer portal is crazier than ever. This time of year seems to be a roller coaster for every team, as players are leaving and committing elsewhere. No doubt this has affected Minnesota heading into the bowl game. What about Bowling Green? Will the Falcons be without any impact players due to players leaving to transfer elsewhere? Do you know if any players will be sitting out of the bowl game?
The transfer portal has already impacted Bowling Green with around 10 players entering it in the last few weeks. The biggest losses were sophomore cornerback Jalen Huskey and senior running back Ta’ron Keith. Huskey (52 total tackles, four interceptions) was a first-team all-MAC selection who recently committed to Maryland, while Keith was crucial as a pass catcher and filling in for injured star running back Terion Stewart late in the season. Keith was second in rushing (408 yards, four touchdowns) and receiving (team-high 44 catches, 457 yards, three touchdowns) this season. At the moment, I don’t believe any players will be sitting out of the bowl game.
3. The Bowling Green offense averaged 328 yards per game this season, which was sixth best in the MAC. They were second in the conference in points per game with 26.3. What makes this offense dangerous? What is one area you would consider a weakness?
Bowling Green’s balance between its rushing and passing attacks has been critical this season. Both have excelled at different points during the season, and when both are clicking together – like the Georgia Tech game – that is when the Falcons are at their best. Their quarterback play with Connor Bazelak and Camden Orth improved significantly during the second half of the season as well in helping the Falcons win five of their last six games. The biggest weakness on offense is protecting the quarterback. Bowling Green usually tries to get the ball quickly to their playmakers, but if the offensive line struggles to protect the quarterback, that’s when the Falcons run into problems.
4. The Bowling Green defense finished fifth in the MAC in yards allowed per game, 329.8. The Falcons defense is one of the best in the nation in creating turnovers, with 16 interceptions and 11 recovered fumbles. What makes this defense so good at creating turnovers? What is one area in need of improvement?
Bowling Green has significant playmakers at each level of the defense, and their ability to track and get to the ball has been impressive. The defensive line has done a solid job of putting pressure on the quarterback, and in the last half of the season, the line has been able to get to the quarterback (20 sacks in last five games compared to 13 in previous seven). Bowling Green really embraces flying to the ball, and that has helped with forcing and recovering fumbles. An area of improvement would be limiting mobile quarterbacks. Bowling Green has struggled to contain quarterbacks who can extend plays with their legs.
5. Can you give us a few players on offense and defense that Minnesota fans should know about heading into the Bowl Game? What players would you consider to be X-factors for Bowling Green?
On offense, sophomore tight end Harold Fannin Jr. has been a go-to target for the two quarterbacks. Despite missing a couple games early in the season with an injury, the first-team all-MAC selection has 39 catches for team highs of 573 yards and six touchdowns, including five scores in his last five games. Fifth-year wide receiver Odieu Hiliare (leading receiver in 2022) has battled injuries all season, but has had a couple solid games as of late, while Bazelak has seven touchdowns and one interception in his last five games compared to four touchdowns and six interceptions in the previous five he played. Defensively, fifth-year senior linebacker Darren Anders (team-high 82 total tackles, 4.5 sacks), junior cornerback Jordan Oladokun (30 tackles, four interceptions), and sophomore linebacker Cashius Howell (9.5 sacks) have been solid all season.
6. This will be the fifth meeting between the two teams on December 26th. The last meeting was a notable one for both teams, as the Falcons shocked Minnesota in Minneapolis in 2021 with a 14-10 victory. It is one of the biggest upsets in college football in the last decade. Minnesota enters the bowl game as three-point favorites. What does Bowling Green need to do to make it two straight wins over the Gophers? What is your prediction for the game?
Bowling Green is going to have to rely on its defense and special teams if it wants to beat Minnesota for a second consecutive game, especially if Stewart is unable to play. Stewart (814 rushing yards, eight touchdowns, 6.1 yards per carry) led the nation in missed tackles forced when he was injured late in Bowling Green’s game against Ball State in early November, and he has missed the last three games. He will be a game-time decision, according to coach Scot Loeffler. If he is able to play, Bowling Green’s chances improve significantly. But if he doesn’t, the running game will likely take a big hit, especially with Keith in the transfer portal. I expect it to be a low-scoring game with Minnesota coming out on top 16-14.