After sitting out 2014 with a hip injury, Matt Johnson is mastering Bowling Green's high-flying offense
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson spent nearly all of last season wearing a headset while he stood on the sideline. That hadn't been the plan for the undersized signal-caller, who had been the MAC's preseason Player of the Year coming off of the Falcons' conference title. Last year was supposed to be his best yet in then-newly hired coach Dino Babers' up-tempo, scoreboard-busting spread offense.
But when Johnson found out after his first game that he had suffered a season-ending hip fracture, all he could do the rest of the year was watch his team and listen as Babers and his coaching staff communicated during games. Johnson would hear Babers call the plays, explain what he wanted and rip into those who didn't do things correctly. All along, Johnson never uttered a single word.
"He was like a damn human tape recorder," Babers tells The Inside Read. "He remembers everything."
That's shown this season as the underrated Johnson has arguably become college football's best passer for defending Mid-American East Division winner Bowling Green (7–2, 5–0). Entering Wednesday night's game at MAC Western Division leader Western Michigan (6–3, 5–0), he's completed 70.5% of his passes for 3,686 yards and 33 touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 219-pound redshirt senior is second in the FBS in passing yardage behind Washington State's Luke Falk, who has just 50 more yards on 123 more attempts. He's also second in touchdown passes with one less than Western Kentucky's Brandon Doughty, who has played one more game. Yet the bearded and mustachioed Johnson has only thrown half as many interceptions (three) as Doughty and Falk.
"For this guy to be doing this in my offense the very first year is a huge deal," Babers says. "He's playing like a second-year quarterback his first year. This isn't a Mickey Mouse offense."
Bowling Green's prolific attack is ranked first in the FBS in passing (430.2 yards per game) under Babers, who's already on many lists for better jobs. He laughs at the lack of fanfare for Johnson.
"Ask the people we've played if they know him," Babers says with a chuckle.
But while Johnson never spoke into his team's headset during games last season, he talked plenty with Babers the following day about what he had heard. Johnson asked questions, but could also recite the rationale Babers hadn't explained during the games in certain offensive situations.
"I'd be like, 'How did you know that?'" Babers says.
While sidelined last season, Johnson also tried to help James Knapke, his replacement and good friend, as much as possible. Still, it was difficult for the ultra-competitive Johnson to watch.
"It was tearing him up," Babers says. "He was always positive, but you could tell that he had a burning desire to be out there."
That's because Johnson knew what he could accomplish in Babers' high-flying offense. In the season-opening 59–31 loss at Western Kentucky last year in which he was injured, he still completed 25 of his 36 passes for 313 yards with a touchdown.
"It was crazy," Babers confesses.
When it came time for spring practice this past March, Johnson still hadn't fully recovered from his injury. He was back at full speed six months later for Bowling Green's season opener against Tennessee, but even Babers was eager to see how his quarterback would respond.
"I didn't know what he was going to do," Babers says. "I thought he was good, but when he started dropping dimes on those SEC cornerbacks after a year layoff, I knew we'd be just fine."
Although Bowling Green ultimately lost 59–30 to Tennessee, Johnson still racked up 424 passing yards and two touchdowns. He's thrown for at least 324 yards in each of the Falcons' games this season, which includes two wins against Big Ten teams.
"It seems like he plays one game and he grows two games," Babers says. "I've never seen anybody grow this fast in the offense."
Under that logic, Johnson is nearly halfway through his second year of playing experience in Babers' system. That's when Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady's backup in New England and the Patriots' second-round pick in 2014, took off at Eastern Illinois, Babers' previous job before moving to Bowling Green.
Except Johnson's numbers are on pace to be better than Garoppolo's eye-popping statistics and have come against much tougher competition. And while Johnson is several inches shorter than Garoppolo, Babers believes Johnson is also more than capable of making an NFL roster. Johnson could also stay in college and play next season if he receives a medical hardship waiver for a sixth year of eligibility.
"The guy has a strong arm and he's accurate," Babers says. "He can touch the whole football field. Now, he is short and can't grow hair. He's bald-headed. Outside of that, the guy can play."
If for some reason Johnson doesn't stick in the NFL, his playing days wouldn't be over, according to Babers. "He would be a star in the CFL," Babers says.
Johnson's year watching and listening has made him so versed in Babers' complicated offensive scheme that he can sometimes look at his team's formation and predict what play his coach is about to call. "There's a whole bunch of defensive coordinators that can't do that," Babers says with a laugh.
So when Johnson and the offense were moving so fast during a 59–10 blowout of Akron last month that he missed the signal for the play to be run, he looked at the formation and then a threw a touchdown pass based on the wide receiver's first two steps off the line of scrimmage. It's that type of expertise that's prompted Babers to talk with Johnson about coaching—unsuccessfully.
"Coach," Johnson told Babers, "I play."
These days, Johnson doesn't put on a headset during games. There's no need because of he and Babers' ESP-like rapport.
The two are so comfortable that they hardly even speak to each other during games. If they do, it's usually briefly about the correction of a new play or concept.
"It's weird," Babers says. "We're finishing each other's sentences. I mean it's weird. The guy is in my dome. He sees it the way I want it to be seen and plays it the way I want it to be played."
It sounds like the season Johnson spent listening is speaking for itself.
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Wisconsin's youth movement coming of age
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda thought last season was supposed to be his unit's transition year. "But this season we've got more new guys playing than last year," Aranda tells The Inside Read with a laugh.
Only in 2014 those players were mostly seniors, while many of this year's group are freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Yet Aranda's stingy unit is still second in the FBS in points allowed (12.3 points per game) and has six times held opponents to 10 points or less, including two shutouts.
It's been key to No. 25 Wisconsin's overlooked 8–2 record under first-year coach Paul Chryst. The Badgers' only losses have been to No. 3 Alabama (8–1) and fifth-ranked Iowa (9–0).
It's also why the 37-year-old Aranda continues to be mentioned for head-coaching jobs. Last season, his defense finished fourth in the FBS in total yards allowed (298.5 yards per game) behind his aggressive 3–4 scheme that he brought to Madison in 2013.
"It's been a bigger challenge," Aranda says of this season, "but it's starting to come together."
Half of the Badgers' top six tacklers are underclassmen, including redshirt freshman inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, who has a team-high 66 stops. Freshman inside linebacker Chris Orr is tied for fourth in tackles (44) and had started five straight games until he missed his team's last two games. Freshman nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, a 6' 2", 332-pound behemoth, has also started a couple of games.
"You feel good about the young guys getting in because at this point of the season is where all those learning and growing pains start to pay off," Aranda says.
It's all part of a team-wide youth movement. Entering last Saturday's 31–24 win at Maryland, Wisconsin had played 21 freshmen this season, just one less than Penn State, which leads the Big Ten in that category.
"We're looking out there going, 'Who are we?'" Aranda says with a laugh. "We're so young. We have taken on the personality of the younger guys. It's just real energetic and a lot of confidence and a lot of I'm going to throw the first punch, get me out there. I want that blitz. Give it to me. That's kind of refreshing to be around."
And a sign of a bright future for Wisconsin.
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