Folks, the most anticipated week of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football season is finally here.
CAN YOU FEEL IT???
That’s right, our favorite (but also least favorite) Uncle Rico lookalike is returning to the House That Rockne Built, as your beloved Irish, now #9 in the country and 3-1 on the season, play host to the Bowling Green Falcons this Saturday afternoon. The Falcons have not had a very strong start to the 2019 season, and BVG’s defense has certainly struggled to keep opponents out of the end zone, if you can believe it.
So, to see if Notre Dame will be able to score at will in a karmic offensive performance this weekend, I spoke to Zack VanNieuwenhze of Hustle Belt to learn everything we never thought we’d need to know about Bowling Green. We talked about first-year head coach Scot Loeffler, Falcons QB Darius Wade, an all-BGSU dodgeball squad trying to save a gym, a defensive coordinator showdown in the karaoke arena, and of course, Brian VanGorder and his defense.
Arm yourselves with knowledge, folks. IT’S B(V)G WEEK!!!
1. After a beat-down of Morgan State in Bowling Green’s home opener, the Falcons have been absolutely pummeled by opponents in their last three games. What are the prevailing thoughts about how the rest of the Bowling Green season will go? Do they stand any chance of competing in the MAC?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: I had said in our pre-season coverage that Bowling Green would be favored in only one game, with that one game being the Morgan State contest — and that appears to be true. That was a great night to kick off the new coaching staff, and installed some optimism, but the truth is that Morgan State at the FCS level is 0-4. So much of that goodwill might have been misplaced.
I remained optimistic in the Falcons since losing to the Kansas State Wildcats and Louisiana Tech Bulldogs are understandable loses. Two weeks ago, they played another struggling MAC team in Kent State and they were routed, 62-20.
They are just not a good team right now, and after the Fighting Irish, they get arch-rival Toledo, who just beat a good BYU team — so it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
But really, not being a good team right now is okay. There’s a new coaching staff, a young roster, a lack of depth after defections, and so on. Expectations were low for 2019 coming in and they are even lower the rest of the way. I can’t see this team sneaking into the MAC race as they are probably a year or two away.
2. What are your thoughts on first year coach Scot Loeffler? Do you think he has what it takes to turn the program around after a rough last three years under former coach Mike Jinks? Does he have what it takes to find enough success to springboard into a bigger role, as guys like Dave Clawson, Dino Babers, and Urban Meyer have done from the Bowling Green job?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: I really liked the Scot Loeffler hiring and I feel like he has done as good of a job as expected. He brought in a very experienced staff, which was the polar opposite of what the previous regime did. He has been running off the trouble makers and has been making some strides against Toledo in recruiting Northwest Ohio.
But fixing the wrongs of the Jinks era is going to take time. Mike Jinks took the reigning MAC champions and in three years ran them into the ground, so this is a big rebuilding project in terms of both on the field, and off the field in terms of culture.
You are right, BGSU has a rich tradition of head coaches moving on to greener pastures. Loeffler has that same pedigree. He is youngish, experienced, and coached Tom Brady at Michigan back in the day, so it wouldn’t surprise me if in four to five years he finds success and moves on — but it is really too early to tell. I don’t know how he could have done a better job so far (win/loss record aside).
I really want to see where this program is in three to four years when he has some of his own recruiting classes enrolled. There’s just this sense with the new accountability, professionalism, and strength program (which will prove huge over time) that next year will be better and 2021 could be a lot better.
3. Let’s talk about QB Darius Wade — what are his strengths and weaknesses, and how do you see him faring against a Notre Dame defense that has been pretty stingy against more talented offenses from Georgia and Virginia the past couple weeks?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: Interestingly enough, Bowling Green’s last two starters transferred out. James Morgan is an all-CUSA candidate at FIU and Jarret Doege, who left this spring, is a backup at West Virginia. MAC teams just can’t lose that much firepower at quarterback and not miss a beat.
Wade actually lost his position battle to Matt McDonald, another Boston College transfer, but the NCAA is forcing McDonald to redshirt as a transfer. He has had his moments, including winning MAC East player of the week for his effort against Morgan State in week 1, but that may be an outlier.
He is mobile enough to avoid the rush and is able to tuck and run. He has completed just 57 percent of his passes and his 14.7 QBR ranks 127th best in the nation. He has thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions, three. He has had interceptions in back-to-back weeks, which really seemed to change the tone of their games, and is coming off of a two-pick performance against Kent State.
Bowling Green isn’t 1-4 because of Darius Wade, but they could use him being better. Against Notre Dame, it could be a rough outing for him and the offense as a whole. I mean, this is a unit who is 107th in total offense despite an outpouring against Morgan State in week 1, so it’s scary to picture it against ND.
4. Who are the running backs and receivers that the Notre Dame defense will need to always account for and focus on in order to shut down the Falcons offense?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: The Falcons could use a big play threat, but one hasn’t really developed. They do like to use tempo to keep the defense off guard. Outside of the opener against Morgan State, it hasn’t been a great unit being shut out by Kansas State, just one score against Louisiana Tech, and twenty points, mostly in garbage time, against Kent State.
Andrew Clair has been banged up but when healthy is one of the best backs in the Mid-American Conference. He has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and some wiggle to his game. Davon Jones is a powerful compliment to him, as a transfer from Boston College where he played linebacker. Bryson Denley is their third back who should see time.
Quintin Morris has shown good chemistry with Darius Wade. He is a tight end/receiver hybrid. He has had 16 catches for 218 yards and two touchdowns. At 6’4, 228 he is a big, reliable target.
RB Marlow III led the Falcons with 6 receptions against the Golden Flashes and is a slot type. Austin Dorris is a grad transfer from Indiana. Julian Ortega-Jones is another big body at 6’2”.
If Notre Dame can keep Clair bottled up and force Wade to pass, they should have a pretty easy day. Having physical receivers is nice, but they will not be going against a MAC defense on Saturday, as many of the Irish defensive backs can match them with size.
5. The Bowling Green defense has given up 149 points in the last three games. What are your thoughts about defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, a guy Notre Dame fans are very familiar with and very not-fond-of? Is there any player, or position group of players, on his defense that the Irish offense should be worried about?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: The jury is out on VanGorder in Bowling Green, who was a highly hyped hire this off-season. He hasn’t had an easy job, BGSU had one of the worst defenses in the country last season and are a very young bunch this season, so he kind of gets a pass this year. But when your unit allows Kent State to get a record 750 yards, then there’s reasons for concern.
It’s great that he has had experience at some major schools like Notre Dame, but to go from jobs like that to working at Bowling Green…well, that’s going in the wrong direction career wise.
As for personnel, it’s a pretty young group for BG. David Konowalski is probably their best pass rusher from the end spot and is rounding into form from a lost season to injury last year.
Nico Lautanen is a big, tough body in the middle. Brandon Perce has been their best linebacker and a real find for this staff. Kholbe Coleman is another linebacker who has shown flashes. Jamari Bozeman and Jerry McBride III are seniors in the defensive secondary.
If I am Ian Book and the Irish, there isn’t really anyone on BGSU’s defense who is going to scare me. They have had some moral victories thus far, but haven’t held any FBS opponents under 35 points and with Notre Dame being the best offense they have seen thus far.
Side note, as the Falcons season has gone sideways, punter Matt Naranjo has really stepped up (lord knows he has had plenty of chances), but he wouldn’t look out of place punting at a school like Notre Dame.
6. Notre Dame has a sophomore RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Bowling Green roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: Well, with the last name VanNieuwenhze, I can really appreciate some good names. Umm, let’s see. Sophomore defensive back Trent Reichelderfer is quite the Scrabble word score. Reserve back Labronz Davis is a good one — it’s kind of a mix between LeBron and Bronze.
Freshman walk-on Hafiz Igiekhume is one that will drive spell check nuts. There’s also a Tche Leroux but they don’t really see the field much so I might have to go with C’Borius Flemister because he’s got the name and the playing time.
7. Karaoke battle, but with a defensive coordinator twist: Clark Lea vs. Brian VanGorder - what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: Oh jeeze, boy I don’t know. What’s funny is over at Hustle Belt we do a weekly segment called “Shufflebelt” where we ask our followers for song suggestions for each team in the MAC and we set up a play list from there, so of course there would be a question like this.
I don’t know much about Clark Lea other than he has had a strong defense this year, so I am guessing on Saturday he is singing some “Pocketful of Sunshine” by Natasha Bedingfield, a personal favorite of mine.*
*Pat Rick Note: Oh hell yeah, Natasha Bedingfield is MY GAL
Brian VanGorder…I don’t know, probably something that was good once but isn’t anymore. He strikes me as someone who wouldn’t be out of place at a honkytonk yelling “Free Bird.”
I might go with VanGorder here though, because he just looks like a rocker and doesn’t seem to give a crap about personal opinions.
Let’s make this happen so Bowling Green can get at least one dub out of the trip.
8. You need to assemble a dodgeball team in order to win a Las Vegas dodgeball invitational tournament in order to win a cash prize of $50,000 that conveniently is exactly how much you need to save your small, independent gym. What current or former Bowling Green players/coaches do you choose for the team, give reasons why, and are you able to defeat the Globo Gym Purple Cobras and shock the world?
Zack VanNieuwenhze: Now here we are in the heavy hitting questions. My first impression is that I’d like to get some former BGSU hockey guys involved and I am sure that some Falcon fans would like Mike Jinks out there just to see him take a ball to the face, but as for a roster here is my best guess.
Urban Meyer - Former head coach, I am not sure he would let any team of his lose, and he showed some ability to dodge things while at OSU.**
**Pat Rick Note: AYOOOOOOOOOO
Phil Villapiano - A beloved former Falcon. He was a former NFL Hall of Fame candidate after a mid-70s playing career with the Raiders. He made four Pro Bowls and won a Super Bowl. If he could play for the Raiders in that era I want him on my team for dodgeball.
Omar Jacobs/Josh Harris- Two former mobile QBs with strong arms who had cups of coffee in the NFL. They could dodge defenders and throw darts, what’s not to like?
Freddie Barnes - Great receiver who once had 22 receptions in a game against Kent State. He was too slow for the NFL, but would catch everything in a game of dodgeball.
Andrew Clair would probably be a good current player to have.
I would roll with these guys and yeah, shock the world. Book it.
9. Prediction time: give me the final score for Bowling Green @ ND, who wins, and your reasoning why.
Zack VanNieuwenhze: You know, four or five years ago, that level of Bowling Green program could have been a sneaky upset type pick here. The Falcons program was that competitive. But as it stands, the best case scenario these days is like the Ball State/Notre Dame game a year ago which ND won 24-16, but was basically in control the whole game.
That seems like a tough ask for the Falcons. Their weaknesses match up with the Fighting Irish’s strengths. I think this should be a game where the Irish can get guys like Rudy in for some playing time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some of their backups have more offensive production than some of BG’s starters.
I think it could be that ugly. Notre Dame is better than Kansas State, who won 52-0 against BGSU, and Kent State just put up 62 on them.
Touchdown Jesus can get his arms up all day, like always, because the Irish will be scoring that often.
Notre Dame wins 45-3.
I want to give a huge shout-out to Zack for all of his fantastic answers, including an unbelievably thorough and impressive response to my dodgeball question — that team would truly be an inspiring underdog story.
Make sure, heading into this weekend, you check out Hustle Belt for some great MACtion coverage — particularly for this game (I may or may not have a Q&A being published there with some of my answers to their questions!!!!). Furthermore, be sure to toss both Zack’s Twitter account and the Hustle Belt account some follows, please and thank you.
That’s all for this Q&A, folks — see you on Friday for my game preview!