Falcons defenders unfazed by Big Ten

John Eligon

Bowling Green defensive coordinator Tim Beckman may be leaving his familiar Mid-American Conference territory this weekend, but coming to Northwestern, he’ll still be on somewhat familiar turf. That’s because Beckman knows Big Ten football.

While a youngster, he experienced the conference firsthand — his father, Dave, was a coach at Iowa. Beckman paid close attention to the tricks he learned from his dad, and it’s now paying dividends.

Bowling Green boasts the best defense in the MAC and, more significantly, the third-best rushing defense in the nation.

“They’re pretty good football players, so they make me a better coach,” Beckman said. “We’ve been very successful with what we’re doing.”

Although the competition in the MAC may not be the stiffest around, the Falcons rushing defense’s impressive numbers are hard to ignore. Bowling Green has held all but two of its opponents to less than 100 yards rushing. Miami (Ohio) had 109 rushing yards against the Falcons — the most they’ve allowed this season.

Last weekend, Bowling Green surrendered just 105 yards on the ground to Ohio, the nation’s sixth-best rushing squad. Ohio is averaging more than 243 rushing yards per game.

“They don’t stay blocked,” NU head coach Randy Walker said. “This is still a pretty simple game. Good defenses get off blocks and make tackles. They work to get around blocks and they make tackles.”

Bowling Green’s rush defense is partly motivated by the tough offensive performance that follows behind it. While the Falcons allow just 72.6 rushing yards per game, they also amass more than 163 yards rushing a game itself.

“I think our offense deserves some credit for our defense,” said linebacker Khary Campbell, who led the team with 95 tackles last season. “They have done a great job of controlling the ball and that allows us to stay fresh.”

The Falcons’ dynamic defense is what makes it so dangerous, Beckman said. It mixes up its looks to deceive opposing offenses.

“Our defense is wide open,” Beckman said. “We show different fronts, we move all the time. We zone blitz a lot. The good thing (about zone blitzing) is you can bring all three linebackers and drop two defensive linemen.”

In a zone rush, Bowling Green sends numerous defenders to blitz, while others drop back to cover their positions. This confuses the opposition’s quarterback and offensive line as to who is actually rushing the passer.

Trickery aside, the Falcons rely on brute force up the middle to stop the run as well. One of their marquee players is nose tackle Brandon Hicks, whom Walker called “a very active football player.” Campbell and defensive ends Ryan Wingrove and Chris Glantzis all contribute to a virtually impenetrable rush defense as well.

“The important thing for us is to know and execute our assignments,” Hicks said. “It is important for me to get off the ball, know my assignment and stay low.”

They stack the box — bringing extra defenders up behind the linemen — which allows them to better contain the rushing game.

“We’re going to try to keep six or seven guys in the box as much as we can,” Beckman said. “We try to outnumber them. We disguise some things so it might look like we only have five in the box, but we have more.”

But in stacking the box, Bowling Green is placing more pressure on its defensive backs, who must often slip into man coverage. But it’s a strategy that doesn’t scare the Falcons’ defense.

“We have a lot of confidence in our defensive backs and their ability to cover people,” safety Chad Long said. “We have been put in a lot of situations where we have had to do that this year and I think we have done a good job.”

Crowding the middle becomes a task even more daunting this weekend for Bowling Green against NU’s spread offense because the Wildcats use the entire width of the field. This opens up the outside edges when defenses clog the area between the tackles.

Still, NU’s spread will be nothing new for Bowling Green. The Falcons have already faced Miami (Ohio) and Marshall this season, both of which operate from spread offenses with no huddle.

“Of course because there’s no huddle, things have to be set up,” Beckman said. “We don’t let the no-huddle take us out of the way we play our game. We still have to play the way we want to play.”

And if they play the way they’ve been playing against opposing teams so far this season, the Falcons could leave NU’s depleted tailback corps without any room to run.

“We do a lot,” Beckman said. “That’s the biggest thing, we do a lot of things.”