With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.
In Week 3, the Wildcats will play host to the Falcons of Bowling Green (also sometimes referred to as Bowling Green State). The perennial MAC contenders had a down year in 2016 after the departure of head coach Dino Babers, but look to rebound in a potential trap game for the ‘Cats the week before the big showdown with Wisconsin.
Returning Starters: 13 (six offensive, seven defensive)
Returning Experience: 71%
2016 Record: 4-8 (3-5 MAC)
Coach: Mike Jinks (2nd year)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2016 S&P+ Overall: 111th
2016 S&P+ Offense: 92nd
2016 S&P+ Defense: 115th
With a new, inexperienced coach in Mike Jinks after Dino Babers’ departure for Syracuse along with a difficult non-conference schedule, expectations weren’t very high for the 2016 Falcons. And for the first nine games of the season, they looked the part of a rebuilding team, going 1-8 amid a 67 point loss to Ohio State and a 74 point shellacking at the hands of Memphis. But the final three games marked at least a partial rebound: they took care of Akron and Buffalo and destroyed Kent State. Although a losing season was the expected outcome, the first year to end without a bowl game since 2011 was a tough pill to swallow for the Bowling Green faithful.
Like Duke, Bowling Green was faced with an injury to their incumbent quarterback (Matt Johnson), but unlike Duke, the original replacement failed to impress. Senior James Knapke struggled to start the season, especially in the aforementioned blowout losses. Quickly the reins were turned over to true freshman James Morgan, and despite going through his fair share of struggles the now-sophomore QB flashed his talent and will have six new three-star recruits to throw to.
In their three season-ending wins, the Falcons leaned heavily on their run game, going off for an astounding 995 yards on the ground. But the team will be without 3/5 of their starting 2016 offensive line and is also losing 1000 yard rusher Fred Coppet. Instead, Tyler Lancaster and the rest of Northwestern’s front seven will be tested by the new combo of Donovan Wilson, a 220 pound load, and scatback Josh Cleveland. The two will be no piece of cake, as they combined for over 1100 yards and nearly 5.5 yards per carry in 2016.
The Bowling Green offense will be young, but the key skill players have had a year to work together and showed marked improvement towards the end of 2016. Despite questions on the offensive line, Northwestern’s defense must be ready to step up against this dangerous group.
Bowling Green’s defense struggled mightily in 2016. Similar to Northwestern, they were hit by key injuries to the cornerback and safety positions, but unlike Northwestern, they weren’t able to weather the storm. Their pass defense was among the five worst in the nation, and though two injured secondary members are returning and the rest will all gain a year of experience, they will need to take significant strides to even become mediocre in that category.
The front seven had a better year, but they are losing both their two largest players and two of their sack leaders. The Falcons had a solid year in terms of run defense, but will struggle to remain even average in 2017, and their pass rush should take a step backwards as well. In 2016, Bowling Green’s offense was the markedly better unit, and the gap between the two may widen this year.
Players to Know
QB James Morgan
Despite serious early struggles and turnover problems that persisted throughout the season, Morgan flashed potential by throwing for 2000 yards and 16 touchdowns in just 7 starts. Northwestern’s defense will need to get to him early in order to control the game.
C Tim McAuliffe
McAuliffe, a redshirt senior, will anchor a young line in 2017. The all-conference center will need to turn in a big year for Bowling Green’s all-important rushing attack to succeed.
FS Jamari Bozeman
One of the young members of 2016’s secondary, Bozeman was a lone bright spot, leading the team in interceptions (3) and coming in second in tackles (71). The now-junior has a year of experience under his belt and will be a key matchup for Clayton Thorson.