BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- “Tempo is what we do. We will play fast.”
Dino Babers is speaking in front of his Bowling Green team, which has just finished its last full practice of the spring on April 3. The next day will bring walkthroughs, and then it’s on to the spring game on April 5. Babers, 52, has held what he calls “Back It Up Thursday” on this (and every) Thursday during spring workouts, in which he takes the script for a practice and reverses the order to shake things up for the players. On this Thursday, the team scrimmage happened first thing in the morning. Individual drills and warmups occurred at the very end.
As the Falcons practice, the thing that stands out is just how fast everything moves. The plays are called fast. The coaches yell fast. The players even drink water fast. With all those reps comes repetition, and with all that repetition comes execution. A siren wails between drills. It’s not an air-raid siren, but it might as well be.
Yet Babers is calm, relaxed even. The school’s first-year head coach spends most of the practice with his arms crossed, chatting with assistants and rarely raising his voice. He’s observing. One gets the feeling that Babers does a lot of people watching when he’s not on the football field. At one point during special teams drills in Bowling Green’s indoor turf room, Babers tells everyone, “You did it one second faster on that hash than you did over there.” Once the team moves back to the original spot and runs the field goal again, Babers blows his whistle. “That’s two seconds faster.”
Before leaving FCS Eastern Illinois to fill Bowling Green’s coaching vacancy on Dec. 18, Babers worked at 12 different programs under coaches such as Homer Smith, June Jones and Mike Martz. In the process, he was exposed to a variety of trendy, potent offenses. His philosophy shifted when he began to work under Baylor’s Art Briles in 2008. Babers says Briles’ attack was the best he’s been around because of its aggressive approach. It’s an offense with a defensive mentality. Now, Babers wants his scheme to cause defensive coordinators to lose sleep.
“I know how to win the other way,” Babers said. “I prefer not to. It’s more fun to coach. It’s more fun for the players. It’s much more fun in practice. Practices are boring, but when you practice at that tempo, you don’t have time to be bored. You either play or you do not play. We’ll go Yoda on you. ‘Do or do not, there is no try.’ I love movies, man.”
About 70 percent of Babers’ offense at Bowling Green is a carbon copy of Briles’ at Baylor. The other 30 percent accounts for weather, since Ohio is a little bit different than Waco. The Falcons place an extra emphasis on the kicking game, spend more time under center and integrate some run-heavy formations.
“There’s up-tempo, and there’s what Baylor and Bowling Green do,” Babers said. “There are only two teams that do it. Offenses are nothing but a giant Rolodex. When 60 or 70 percent of the offenses are running it, defenses are seeing it a lot more, they figure out what’s good and bad, and they start stopping it. As an offensive coach you want to stay ahead of the trend. You know it’s good when guys are trying to change the rules without all the other guys knowing they’re trying to change the rules. I do believe that someday some defensive coordinator will sit down and figure out how to stop it. Maybe not today, but someday.”
In an offense like this, time is a checking account. The less that’s used, the more that’s available for later. One or two seconds could mean another play, another first down or another chance to score. Babers inherited an already potent roster after he was hired to replace departed coach Dave Clawson (who is now at Wake Forest), and he plans to transform it into his version of an Eastern Illinois squad that averaged 48.2 points and 87 plays per game in 2013.
The Falcons have a deep receiving corps, talented running backs, a do-it-all speedster in Ronnie Moore and one of the MAC’s premier quarterbacks in Matt Johnson. More help is on the way, too, in now-eligible wideout Gehrig Dieter, a transfer from SMU, and freshman receiver Roger Lewis, a former four-star Ohio State commit who went to Jireh Prep Academy in Matthews, N.C., for a year after pleading guilty to misdemeanor falsification after he was charged with two counts of rape in 2012.
The skill players must do their job, but Babers isn’t hesitant to point out the most important element of his offense.
“Quarterback is everything,” Babers said. “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.”
In a lot of ways, Johnson is the perfect quarterback to drive Babers’ system. He’s mobile, confident and has a year as a starter -- on a 10-4 MAC championship-winning team, no less -- under his belt. As a sophomore, Johnson passed for 3,467 yards with 25 touchdowns and a 64.2 percent completion percentage. The comparisons to Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, who thrived in Babers’ offense for two years and watched his NFL draft stock soar, aren’t necessarily going to be fair. But they’re going to be made nonetheless.
Johnson called the first two weeks of spring practice a “culture shock” from what the team was previously accustomed to under Clawson. Getting lined up, processing the signals and executing a play in a timeline of about 10 to 12 seconds is an obvious adjustment. And Babers has repeatedly said that it takes players a full year to internalize his system. In Babers’ second season at Eastern Illinois in 2013, Garoppolo threw for 5,050 yards with 53 touchdowns and the Panthers went 12-2 with a loss to Towson in the FCS playoffs.
“These are the keys to the Cadillac,” Babers said. “You’re not driving a Pinto. This is not a Ford Explorer. I’m not trying to get anybody mad in Detroit, but Matt’s driving a Cadillac. You aren’t going to be damaging grandpa’s Cadillac when you’re driving to the prom. You have to take care of it. It’s a big role, but I think he’s ready for it.”
If Johnson is going to get comfortable, it’s a matter of doing -- not thinking -- at the increased tempo. Babers calls it the “art of knowing without knowing,” which isn’t so different from Bruce Lee and Enter The Dragon’s “the art of fighting without fighting.” It’s about knowing the job so well that the game inherently slows down.
From a personnel standpoint, speed is just a tactic. By knowing the offense inside and out, another layer can be incorporated. Babers references the movie Heartbreak Ridge starring Clint Eastwood, which spawned the quote “Improvise, Adapt and Overcome.” Fundamentals need to be basic and sound, but he wants his players -- and especially his quarterbacks -- to see the game the way that Neo could see the code in The Matrix, so they can manipulate their environment and exploit a defense’s weaknesses.
“Right now, Matt sees the Lady in the Red Dress,” Babers said. “I want him to see the Lady in the Red Dress and the code at the same time. That’s what I want to get him to. Jimmy Garoppolo did that. Jimmy and Matt have some of the same qualities. You have to have a great work ethic. You have to strive to be the best. You have to have a burning desire not to settle at anything. It’s going to drive your wife crazy. It’s going to drive your kids crazy, but it’s just how you’re wired.”
In 2012, Bowling Green won its first conference championship since 1992. Now the Falcons, who relished the role of the underdog in last year's MAC title game against Northern Illinois, are ready to become the hunted. A lot is different, and a lot is still changing, but the program is out to prove that last season's success wasn’t just a one-time happening.
“Last year we liked the underdog role especially going up against a nationally-ranked NIU team with a Heisman candidate in Jordan Lynch,” Johnson said. “This year we’re taking on the role of, ‘We’re going to repeat.’ We’ve switched gears from let’s shock the world to now you guys have got to come beat us.”