The Dino Babers era at Bowling Green tripped at the starting line, with the Falcons dropping their season opener at Western Kentucky, 59-31. And now they're facing their first hurdle, one that's about 10-feet tall, with the news that junior quarterback Matt Johnson will be lost for the remainder of the season with a hip injury. Babers replaced Dave Clawson, who took the Wake Forest job after winning the MAC in 2013, and there were high hopes that the former Eastern Illinois coach could replicate the sort of success he had in his two seasons with the Panthers.
Babers announced Johnson's injury in his press conference Wednesday morning and said the team found out the severity of the injury on Tuesday evening.
Johnson was an integral part of Bowling Green's MAC championship team, throwing for 3,467 yards and compiling 30 total touchdowns during his sophomore campaign. He rated among the leaders in college football in quarterback rating, finishing above accomplished passers like Aaron Murray, Braxton Miller, Derek Carr and Brett Hundley, according to CFBStats.com. In the Falcons' 47-27 MAC championship win over Northern Illinois, Johnson threw for 393 yards and five scores on 21-of-27 passing.
The Falcons returned a number of talented offensive personnel from last year's team, including Johnson, junior running back Travis Greene (1,594 rush yards and 11 rushing touchdowns in 2013) and speedy sophomore receiver Ronnie Moore (145 yards in the win over Northern Illinois). Most of spring and fall practices were committed to acclimating the players to Babers' up-tempo offensive attack that he calls a clone of the one Art Briles runs at Baylor. (Babers spent four years on Briles' staff as a wide receivers coach.)
That offense sputtered in the first half against Western Kentucky, as the players seemed to be thinking rather than acting (the team had six drops over the course of the game), and that was something Babers was concerned with in the spring. When SI.com sat down with Babers in April, he called it "the art of knowing without knowing" and knowing the game so well that it slows down. Facing the Hilltoppers, nothing seemed slow about the game for Bowling Green, especially on defense, where Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty teed off to the tune of 569 passing yards and six touchdowns.
"I think that you can take all those press clippings and all that other kind of stuff and kind of toilet flush that stuff," Babers said on Wednesday. "Now let's get ready to be really good and see what we really are and get better. I think it was an eye-opening experience so to speak and we have nowhere to go but up. That's for sure."
Babers' offense at Eastern Illinois (run by NFL second-round pick Jimmy Garoppolo) made great strides in the second year, with the Panthers going 12-2 (8-0) in the FCS Ohio Valley Conference. Garoppolo was the driving force behind that success, and Babers was hoping Johnson could be that engine for Bowling Green's offense.
"Quarterback is everything,” Babers said in April. “Don’t get it twisted. The quarterback is everything. Like stock car racing. You need a driver. You can have the best car, but if you don’t have a driver, you’re not going to win. After that you need mechanics, engineers, the pit crew, you need everything else. But you do need a driver, and the driver is the quarterback.”
The new driver for the Falcons is likely Jason Knapke, a former two-star recruit from the 2012 class. The Bishop Luers (Ft. Wayne, Ind.) product is listed at 6-2, 220 pounds and has just 10 passing attempts in his career, including a 4-of-4 performance with one touchdown in a 48-7 win over Murray State a year ago. While he attempts to get acclimated against Virginia Military Institute on Saturday, it only gets tougher from there, with Bowling Green playing Indiana and at Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks after that. If Knapke (or Knapke's backup, freshman Cody Callaway) can pick up the offense quickly, there are still plenty of skill players in Babers' scheme to pick up points. But Bowling Green might have to slow down the tempo and integrate more plays under center than Babers orginially intended.
With Johnson's injury, the MAC East is a bit more up for grabs. Ohio is already 1-0 in the conference with a Week 1 win over Kent State, and Akron continues to improve in Terry Bowden's third year. Whoever comes out of the loaded West division, filled with teams like Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ball State, likely becomes the favorite in the conference.