Tough task ahead of Toppers in season opener

Freshman linebacker Masai Whyte grabs a tackling dummy during football practice on Tuesday, Aug. 26 at Smith Stadium in Bowling Green. Mike Clark/HERALD

Kyle Williams

During WKU football’s Monday morning press conference, redshirt senior defensive back Cam Thomas said the team’s goal this season is to run the table, making a win against Bowling Green State University on Friday its first priority.

With a new conference, a new head coach, a new field and new game day attractions, it’s hard not to share  Thomas’ excitement about the upcoming football season. However, the Hilltoppers’ first test won’t be a walk in the park.

The Falcons are coming off a 10-4 season that yielded a Mid-American Conference Championship. BGSU returns 16 starters – eight on offense, six on defense and two from special teams.

“This first one we’re playing is an outstanding opponent,” Head Coach Jeff Brohm said. “They’ve proven themself last year, they have a lot of people coming back, and they’re a very senior-laden team, especially on defense. Also, their quarterback and running back is back. Of course, they’re picked to finish first in the conference, so it’ll be a great test for us. But that’s what it’s all about. That’s why you play the game.”

Redshirt juniors Matt Johnson and Travis Greene, BGSU’s starting quarterback and running back from a season ago, highlight the returners on offense.

Johnson allotted 3,467 passing yards and 25 touchdowns last year while completing 64.2 percent of his passes and tossing just seven interceptions.

Greene rushed for a single-season program record 1,594 yards for 11 touchdowns and also hauled in 18 receptions and two receiving scores.

The Falcons led the MAC in rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense a season ago and return two all-MAC performers at the linebacker position in redshirt seniors D.J. Lynch and Gabe Martin.

Lynch, an outside linebacker, led the team with 85 tackles a season ago, eight for a loss. He also added two sacks and a fumble recovery. Martin, despite playing in only seven games, earned all-MAC honors and recorded 36 tackles and two sacks.

First-year Head Coach Dino Babers, who tallied a 12-2 record and a No. 2 national FCS ranking at Eastern Illinois last season, leads BGSU this year. Babers spent four seasons at Baylor prior to his stop at EIU, thus making him known for his up-tempo style of play.

EIU ran the Baylor-style offense under Babers and finished last season with the best offense in the FCS. The Panthers averaged 589.5 yards per game and 48.2 points per game, leading the FCS in both categories. Babers’ defensive units also ranked top 30 in scoring defense, red zone defense and passing defense efficiency in 2013.

In two years with Babers as his head coach, EIU quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 8,873 yards and 84 touchdowns. Last season, Garoppolo was named the Walter Payton Award winner, which is virtually the FCS’ Heisman Trophy.

Thomas, who ranked top 20 nationally last season with 15 passes defended and five interceptions for the Hilltoppers last season, said WKU has known what to expect from its first opponent.

“We’ve been definitely keeping up the tempo on offense,” Thomas said. “Making sure that we stay up-tempo and make sure that the pace is fast because we know our opponent is going to have a fast-paced offense. We’ve been doing a lot of conditioning to get our bodies in shape, especially the young guys getting acclimated into our scheme.”

Brohm said the Hilltoppers have worked on tempo throughout the spring, summer and fall, and added that the team just needs to line up correctly and get the plays in before BGSU has a chance to catch them off guard.

With such a formidable opponent between WKU and its first win in its inaugural Conference USA season, Brohm wasn’t bashful when asked how significant a victory would be.

“It would be a huge win for us – without question,” Brohm said. “We’re, like everyone else, going to take one game at a time, but this is a very good opponent…it’s going to be a test.