Tag Archives: James Knapke

Departure of Ohio Bobcats’ Sprague Readies Bowling Green Falcons to Soar

Over the past decade, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of MAConsistency than the Ohio Bobcats. Frank Solich is the longest tenured coach in the Mid-American Conference (by seven years). Ohio has been bowl eligible in each of the last seven seasons. Year in and year out, there’s a comfort in knowing exactly what to expect from the Bobcats.

Which is why last Wednesday’s news of redshirt senior J.D. Sprague’s departure from the Bobcats– a breach in that crucial MAConsistency- is all the more unsettling for conference title contenders.

Sprague had spent fall camp battling with teammates Greg Windham and Quentin Maxwell in a three-way quarterback competition and with the side-effects of his offseason surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. Citing issues with the condition of his collarbone, the former walk-on hung up his cleats for good on Wednesday after determining he couldn’t “perform at the level needed to lead [the Bobcats] to another successful season.”

https://twitter.com/jdsprague3/status/765989715392749568

At the conclusion of fall camp last Friday, Solich declared Windham the team’s starter. While the Bobcats’ run-first attack certainly doesn’t hinge upon having an elite passer at the helm (not that Sprague would be one anyway), Windham’s 53 career attempts pale in comparison to Sprague’s 323.

In Bowling Green, Ohio this offseason, there existed no such quarterback controversy. James Knapke will be under center for the MAC East-favorite Falcons. He has attempted 513 passes.

While stepping into Matt Johnson’s shoes stands no easy task, but it’s nothing Knapke hasn’t handled before. When Johnson missed the near entirety of the 2014 campaign with an early hip injury, Knapke threw for 3,173 yards in his place and managed to achieve something Matt Johnson never could: winning a bowl game.

If Sprague could suit up for the green and white, things might be different. Maybe with Darrius Vick finally finished siphoning his snaps, Sprague could put his accuracy woes to bed with Sebastian Smith Sr. leading one of the MAC’s deeper receiving corps. Maybe Sprague’s experience could streamline their 109th ranked red zone offense enough to keep pace with MAC heavyweights like Western Michigan and, yes, Bowling Green- both of whom shellacked the Bobcats last season in humiliating fashion. Maybe if the Bobcats could maintain consistency at the most critical of positions, they could earn recognition as a formidable MAC East contender. Instead, they’ll be handing the baton to a quarterback with 53 career attempts. Advantage: Falcons.

Sure, there’s twenty-two players on a football field, but just how critical is that quarterback position though? For reference, let’s take a look at how the MAC East shook out last season:

  1. Bowling Green
  2. Ohio
  3. Akron
  4. Buffalo
  5. Kent State
  6. Miami
  7. Massachusetts

Here’s how the MAC East quarterbacks ranked in QBR last season:

  1. Matt Johnson (Bowling Green)
  2. Darrius Vick (Ohio)
  3. Thomas Woodson (Akron)
  4. Joe Licata (Buffalo)
  5. Blake Frohnapfel (Massachusetts)
  6. Billy Bahl (Miami)
  7. Colin Reardon (Kent State)

Notice the two lists are virtually identical (with Bowling Green claiming first in both, Ohio claiming second in both, etc.). Let’s examine the MAC West as well. Yet again, they’re virtually identical.

  1. Northern Illinois
  2. Western Michigan
  3. Toledo
  4. Central Michigan
  5. Ball State
  6. Eastern Michigan
  1. Zach Terrell (Western Michigan)
  2. Cooper Rush (Central Michigan)
  3. Drew Hare (Northern Illinois)
  4. Phillip Ely (Toledo)
  5. Brogan Roback (Eastern Michigan)
  6. Riley Neal (Ball State)

Folks, breaking news: quarterbacks are important when playing the game of football. (Somebody ought to let Florida know). Clearly the strength of your MAC quarterback directly correlates to the strength of your MAC football team, and as far as these two MAC contenders are concerned, that binary quarterback battle is one Bowling Green wins every week from now until November.

But, in a reversal from previous seasons, Ohio wields the advantage in skill positions. The Bobcats return their leading rusher in A.J. Ouellette and all three of their leading receivers in Jordan Reid, Brandon Cope, and, most notably, Sebastian Smith Sr. On the contrary, Bowling Green loses a 1,300-yard rusher in Travis Greene and two 1,000-yard wide receivers in Gehrig Dieter and Roger Lewis. That leaves an experienced Knapke with younger, less experienced options and an inexperienced Windham with proven, more experienced options. I don’t know about you, but my money will always be on an experienced quarterback.

Bowling Green also benefits tremendously from four returning starters on the MAC’s sturdiest offensive line, acting as a one-two punch with Mike Jinks’ high-octane attack to exhaust opposing defenses. They also retain a healthy majority of their secondary to match pace with equally high-octane attacks. Ohio then boasts the MAC’s sturdiest front sevens in response, making their October 8 showdown with the Falcons even more intriguing.

Then again, Bowling Green dominated the Bobcats to the tune of 62-24 last season. Perhaps it won’t be so intriguing after all. Maybe the MAC East won’t be either. Ohio’s grit simply cannot outshine Bowling Green’s glamour. In the past four seasons, it hasn’t.

Intrigue aside, it’s hard to ignore the irony of the season that lies ahead. On one hand is Mike Jinks, a brand new coach positioned for easy success in college football’s weakest division. On the other hand is Frank Solich, who is being perennially punished by the MAC Gods for reasons unbeknownst to me. With the loss of J.D. Sprague, Solich is staring down the barrel of another close-but-not-quite season. Meanwhile, consistency be damned. Jinks’ Falcons are spreading their wings and soaring sky-high straight toward Ford Field come November.

Email Cole at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Cole_Hankins.

Photo courtesy of Matt Cooper – Flickr

Let the MACtion Begin

As the calendar flips to its November page we start to realize some things.  Fall is in full-swing, the weather is chillier (supposedly), and college football is nearing the home stretch.  Thanks to the Mid-American Conference, November also means football every single day of the week.

No longer do we have to suffer through the mid-week blues that are caused by having no football to watch on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.  The brilliant people of the MAC felt our pain and did something about it.

#MACtion officially began on Tuesday when the Northern Illinois Huskies went to Toledo for a showdown with the West division-leading Rockets.

Less than an hour before kickoff, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee awarded the undefeated Rockets with the twenty fourth spot in their first rankings of the season.  That ranking will go down as the shortest-lived in history.

Northern Illinois at #24 Toledo

(Photo: Jeremy Wadsworth / Toledo Blade)
(Photo: Jeremy Wadsworth / Toledo Blade)

This game was entertaining from the jump.  The Huskies fumbled on their third play from scrimmage and got bailed out by their defense forcing a turnover on downs.  After an NIU punt, the Rockets opened the scoring with a touchdown pass from Phillip Ely to Alonzo Russell who skied to make a great catch in the end zone.

The Huskies answered immediately as Tommylee Lewis flew by the Toledo secondary, caught an easy pass from Drew Hare and waltzed into the end zone untouched.  The game was tied at seven, midway through the first quarter.

Terry Swanson and Kareem Hunt took charge on the Rockets’ next drive.  The running back tandem accounted for all 83 yards on the drive, including a 58-yard dash from Swanson whose crisp spin move will end up on his career highlight reel.  (Speaking of crispy, how bout those all golds Toledo busted out for this one?)  Anyway, Hunt took over in the red zone and punched it in, recapturing the lead for the Rockets.

Then things got a bit sloppy.  Hidden in that sloppiness was an unlikely conversion on third and 39, after an errant snap had pushed the Huskies way behind the sticks.  Three field goals, three turnovers, and four punts later it was halftime, the score 17-16 in favor of Toledo.

Before halftime Northern Illinois suffered two strange and seemingly debilitating injuries to their offensive playmakers.  Quarterback Drew Hare and receiver Tommylee Lewis both went down with non-contact injuries that prevented them from returning.  The odds were stacked against the Huskies as the second half began.

Four consecutive punts opened the third quarter as both teams played conservatively coming out of the locker room.  Then Kareem Hunt took matters into his own hands again, leading the Rockets down the field with a long run and then adding another touchdown.

Each team kicked a field goal on their next possession, making it 27-19.

It’s unfortunate to have to say, but the officiating crew left their mark on this game.  A questionable personal foul call on Toledo extended Northern Illinois’ next drive.  The Huskies did what good teams do by taking advantage.

(Photo: Raj Mehta / USA Today Sports)
(Photo: Raj Mehta / USA Today Sports)

Kenny Golladay made an unbelievable one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone that should get some votes for play of the year in college football.  Down by two with less than 10 minutes to play Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey decided to go for the tie.  Toledo snuffed out the option attempt to preserve their narrow lead, 27-25.

After Toledo missed a field goal the Huskies had about five minutes left.  Their offense shifted into another gear.  Stepping up in the absence of Tommylee Lewis, Kenny Golladay made two crucial plays on the drive, one to convert on third down, and the other to get his team into the red zone.  Joel Bouagnon, who had been quiet for the majority of the game, took it from there and then gave the Huskies their first lead of the game with a tick under two minutes to play.

The Northern Illinois defense intercepted Phillip Ely’s first pass on the next drive to put the game on ice.

Toledo’s first loss of the season unseated them from the top of the West division.  That spot now belongs to Western Michigan who is 5-0 in conference play.

Ohio at Bowling Green

The MAC’s Wednesday night follow-up wasn’t nearly as tight as Tuesday’s premier.  Even so, it was nice to have a football game to watch on an otherwise boring Wednesday night.  Plus, it was good for people to see how potent this Bowling Green offense is.  The Falcons took full advantage of a banged up Ohio Bobcat defense that was simply overmatched.

The Falcons got off to a slow start and had to punt on their first drive of the game.  They punted just twice more the rest of the contest.  After the first one, they scored on their next four drives.

The first two scores came on runs from Travis Greene.  Ohio, however, had an answer for both touchdown drives and it was 14-all with ten minutes to play in the half.  Sebastian Smith provided the Bobcats’ highlights, pulling off an amazing leaping catch on the first scoring drive and a tremendous diving grab on the second.

(Photo: Lori King / Toledo Blade)
(Photo: Lori King / Toledo Blade)

Determined not to be outdone, Bowling Green’s Ronnie Moore caught a pass and turned it into a touchdown by looking like the only guy who knew what was going on.  The Falcons had taken the lead for good.

(Photo: Ruben Kappler / BGSU Athletics)
(Photo: Ruben Kappler / BGSU Athletics)

The Falcons’ special teams got in on the action too, blocking a punt on Ohio’s next drive.  That setup Bowling Green with a short field that they were able to take advantage of.  Quarterback Matt Johnson floated a ball into the corner of the end zone perfectly for Gehrig Dieter to run under it and reel it in.  It was 27-14 Falcons at the break.

The second half was all Bowling Green as they pulled away by outscoring Ohio 21-3 in the third frame.

It was one of those nights where everything the Falcons did seemed to be working well, as evidenced by Gehrig Dieter’s circus catch and second touchdown of the night.

Ohio backup quarterback JD Sprague, who had come into the game for the injured Derrius Vick, was not welcomed kindly by the Bowling Green defense.  Dernard Turner intercepted a pass that shouldn’t have been thrown and took it 85 yards the other way for a pick six.  The rout was officially on.

The Falcons’ next drive ended on an easy pitch-and-catch from Johnson to Roger Lewis, something you’ve seen frequently if you’ve watched any of their games this season.  Then, unsatisfied with just two rushing scores, Travis Greene added a third by blazing down the sideline to make it 55-17 midway through the fourth quarter.

On the ensuing possession Maleek Irons delivered punishing blows to multiple Bowling Green defenders on his to the end zone for six pride points.  You have to admire a guy who’s still out there playing like that in a game like this.

Even the Falcons’ backups had some fun.  James Knapke connected with Teo Redding on a screen pass with three and a half minutes to go, closing the scoring at 62-24.

So, what did we learn?  Well, you now know, if you didn’t already, that the MAC offers highly entertaining games in the middle of your dreary work week.

Be advised: the biggest games are yet to come.

Next week’s MACtion includes two games with serious conference championship implications.  Toledo hits the road to face Central Michigan on Tuesday as both try to keep pace in the West.  Then on Wednesday we get to see a possible MAC championship preview when Bowling Green heads to Western Michigan for a clash of undefeated teams.

Stay tuned down the stretch as we follow mid-week MACtion.