Playing on national TV on a Thursday night gave the Hilltoppers a head start to the season on most of the FBS. As it turns out, WKU also got a jump on Bowling Green too, roaring out the gate and establishing a 21-point lead before the Falcons responded. So much for the ballyhooed 'Falcon Fast'. Say hello to 'Hilltopper Haste". Okay enough alliterative nonsense. On to the grades.
Quarterbacks: I noted elsewhere on Underdog Dynasty that Brandon Doughty has had some concerns when he was forced to throw last season. He must have read it. Doughty came out firing, marching the Hilltoppers up and down the field with consummate ease, and smashing team records along the way. The senior completed 46 of 56 passes for 569 yards and 6 TDS, and had a handful of passes dropped too. Doughty was voted CUSA Player of the Week, and also earned CFPA awards for National and Quarterback Performer of the Week. Now the problem is maintaining his level of play.
Running Backs: I expected Leon Allen to be more of a factor, but he was almost an afterthought as Doughty went ballistic. Still, Allen had some nice runs against a tough defense, and was more effective as the Falcons wore down. He finished with 93 yards and a TD on 28 carries. Also receiving carries was Anthony Wales, who had 8 carries for 27 yards and the Hilltoppers final score, while Kylen Towner had 2 carries for 15 yards. Not amazing numbers, but they were effective when needed. On 5 third down carries, the running backs made 4 first downs and a TD. Can't ask for much more than that. Allen added 6 receptions for 53 yards, while Wales had 2 for 9. On the downside, Allen fumbled twice, though the Toppers recovered them.
Receivers: Doughty wasn't throwing to himself, so it's no surprise that the receivers really stepped forward. Taywan Taylor, who caught 24 passes as a freshman last season, led the team with 12 receptions for 185 yards and a TD. JUCO signing Jared Dangerfield caught 10 passes, gaining 92 yards and scoring twice. Tight end Mitchell Henry caught 6 passes for 77 yards, while last year's leading receiver, Willie McNeal, caught a mere 5 passes for 70 yards and 2 scores. They dropped a couple of passes, but the receivers gutted the Falcon secondary, and they look like a deep unit.
Offensive Line: Let's bear in mind that this is a young starting line, with only one senior (Cameron Clemmons), and the rest were sophomores, and a redshirt freshman. They had the task of bumping heads with a senior-laden BGSU defense, although one that was painfully light up front. Surprisingly, where one would expect them to struggle - against the pass rush - they were excellent, allowing just 1 sack and 2 credited hurries. Where they were more likely to dominate, thanks to more bulk up front, the line struggled some, giving 7 tackles for loss, and averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. It is early days for this unit though, and they looked better down the stretch.
Defensive Line: The line struggled at times against the run, giving up 153 yards and 3 TDs as the Falcons running backs ran for decent yardage. However, they came up with some key plays too, despite making just 2 tackles for loss. However, many of the yards were racked up when WKU had a big lead, and were essentially playing the pass. The unit was far more effective getting pressure, with redshirt freshman Tanner Reeves coming up with 2 sacks in his first real action, and Bryan Shorter adding 1. The line was also credited with 4 quarterback hurries.
Linebackers: Apart from Nick Holt, the linebackers were pretty quiet on Thursday night. Holt was in on a lot of the action, leading the team with 9 tackles, sharing a tackle for loss, and was credited with a hurry. The rest of the unit totalled just 8 tackles, but with Bowling Green passing to get back in the game, it makes sense that the linebackers would have less of an impact. We'll probably get a better idea of how well they'll play the run next week against Illinois, but we'll give them a provisional grade for now, mostly for Holt's play.
Defensive Backs: Playing against the best quarterback in the MAC, and having just one starter returning (albeit Cam Thomas), this could have been a whole lot worse, but the secondary held up well against a stiff test. The unit did an excellent job of keeping the play in front of them, with just one pass, Ronnie Moore's 41-yard TD reception, over 25 yards. This forced the Falcons to go on long drives, which is no fun when you're playing catchup. Early on, the unit flustered Johnson, playing a big role in establishing the 21-point lead. New starter Prince Charles Iworah broke up Johnson's first pass on third down, setting the tone. DeMarcus Glover was also credited with a pass defended, while Thomas and Marcus Ward had 6 tackles each, while the latter was in on a tackle in the backfield. On a negative note, Ward was called for a personal foul on Johnson, and also pass interference.
Special Teams: Kicker Garrett Schwettman made a 29-yard field goal, but missed a 41-yarder, and made all of his PATs, while Mike Mugler showed a nice leg on kickoffs with 2 touchbacks. Both of Joseph Occhipinti's punts were over 50 yards, but one was returned 28 yards, while the other was a touchback. Kick coverage was okay.
The Bottom Line: This was a great performance that probably won't get enough credit for exactly how great it really was. The game was played in front of a national audience against the reigning MAC champions, and all the pregame talk was of Bowling Green and 'Falcon Fast'. The Hilltoppers are no stranger to tough games, and went about their business very effectively, setting the tone early and never taking their foot off the gas. When the Falcons realized what hit them, they were in catchup mode, something they aren't used to. For a young team, particularly on defense, they deserve to hold their heads high, even though BGSU drew some blood at times. This could be a season-defining win.