After having to wait about two months longer than normal to get on the field, the Falcons are ready to take on their rival in the first of at least six games this season.
The game will be played at the Glass Bowl Stadium in Toledo today at 8 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPNU.
This is an unusual time in the season to be playing Toledo, as the non-conference normally rules the start of the season from previous years. It is going to be a challenge that none of these players have had to face, but the Falcons are ready to defend their win from last season.
“There's quite a bit of challenge. They’re an older veteran team. They are extremely veteran, they’re established. We are going to have to adapt and adjust,” Bowling Green Head Coach Scot Loeffler said.
Last year was an unusual Battle of I-75 as well, but for much different reasons. The Falcons, who were 1-4 coming into that game against a Toledo team that was 4-1, pulled an improbable 20-7 win in the statement victory of an otherwise lackluster 3-9 opening season for new head coach Scot Loeffler.
This year, the mindset for both teams has changed. Bowling Green knows that the Rockets aren’t going to come into this game off their guard.
“I feel like the intensity is going to be much higher. But I feel like our confidence level has built up so much more in the last year,” Bowling Green linebacker Kholbe Coleman said. “We are treating this like every other game, but at the same time we still gotta have a chip on our shoulder. We still have to come out there with our workman’s hat on ready to go.”
The Falcons are going to be led in the game by their new starting quarterback Matt McDonald.
McDonald, a redshirt junior transfer from Boston College, was a three-star prospect coming out of high school who never really had the chance to shine for the Eagles.
At running back, the Falcons will trot out another redshirt junior, who has had injury problems his entire career. But when able to get on the field, Andrew Clair has definitely been a difference maker rushing for 1,671 yards and 13 touchdowns in 26 games for the Falcons.
Last year it was Bryson Denley who was able to run for over 100 yards in the victory.
This year, the Falcons will look to use a combination of the two with both catching passes as well.
For the most part, the receivers that McDonald will have to throw to on Saturday will be young. But the one exception is veteran tight end Quintin Morris.
Morris made the transition to tight end in 2019, smoothly catching 55 passes for 649 yards and four touchdowns. Last year against the Rockets, the senior caught just two passes for 27 yards.
With McDonald now at the helm of the offense, the Falcons should look to the air more than they did last year when they threw the ball just 21 times in the game. Morris is going to look to be a big part of that.
On the offensive line, the Falcons will trot out two sophomores in John O’Brien and Cameron Stage, a junior in Derek Downs and two seniors in Joe Ware and Tim Tanner-Blair.
It is a relatively young offensive line, with limited experience that will have the tall task of protecting their new quarterback from a Toledo defensive line that sports two returning defensive ends in Jamal Hines and Desjuan Johnson.
Loeffler and the Falcons know that it is going to be tough, but he also knows that this is part of the process of bringing the football program back.
“We’re rebuilding, however you want to say it. Whenever you rebuild a place you are gonna have a lot of young players. We’re going to have to live with some bumps and bruises of learning on the fly here. There’s some positive and negative things about it but we’re gonna go out and we are going to teach these younger players how to play,” Loeffler said.
On defense, the Falcons will be tasked with stopping Bryant Koback for the second straight season. Koback had just 60 yards on 14 carries in the game last season, and was virtually a non-factor for the Rockets.
Karl Brooks led the teams in sacks last season with 4.5. He returns, but the interior line took a hit with David Konowalski and Nico Lautenen are gone, both of whom combined for 15 tackles and three sacks last season against Toledo. It will have to be Walter Haire and Jordan Murphy who will need to step in this year to try and do the same against the Rockets.
At linebacker, the Falcons get back Kholbe Coleman, who led them with 14 tackles in the victory over the Rockets last season. Jerry Roberts was also a big factor in that game and he returns as well.
The young secondary, which held the Toledo passing game to only 260 yards passing last season, returns Caleb Biggers and Jordan Anderson to lead the charge.
Last year it was Mitch Guadagni throwing the ball for the Rockets. This year, no one will know the starting signal caller until they trot out for the first series on Wednesday night.
It is between Carter Bradley, Dequan Finn and Eli Peters right now. Both Peters and Bradley saw time in the game against the Falcons last season after Guadagni went down with an injury. They combined to go 6 of 15 through the air for 66 yards with Peters throwing and interception.
This creates a difficult dynamic for the coaching staff coming into the game for multiple reasons.
“Obviously you want to know who the starting quarterback is, but again, it is kind of out of our control so we’ve got to put the best game plan that we can together and adapt and adjust,” Loeffler said. “We’ve got to coach on the run with some young dudes and that’s okay, that’s part of the process, we understand it and we are going to go play our tails off and find a way to win the game.”
Each team is looking to get their 2020 MAC season started off right, with a win over their rivals and a 1-0 start. For Toledo, it’s redemption and for Bowling Green, it’s building off the win from last season and pushing it into the rest of this season.
“That win at least showed our kids that whenever you play with great emotion, the urgency, the togetherness, good things can happen. For our program to get where it needs to be we need to be able to walk into our building every single day and it’s Toledo, it’s that day,” Loeffler said. “With having such young players right now, they need to learn that and that is where we are trying to move the needle of our team right now.”