MADISON, Wis. — If self-deprecation is indeed the appetizer of charm, then Bowling Green football coach Dino Babers is laying the sweet-talk on pretty thick this week.
Maybe Babers truly believes his team has virtually no chance to beat No. 19 Wisconsin when the two meet at 11 a.m. Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium. Or perhaps Babers has a few tricks up his sleeve and simply is trying to provide the Falcons with some cover regardless of the outcome. Wisconsin did open the week, after all, as 22.5-point favorites.
Either way, Babers spent his teleconference with reporters this week propping up Wisconsin (1-1) as a national power while at the same time downplaying the potential for Bowling Green (2-1) to spring any type of upset. This from a coach who only days earlier saw his team storm past Big Ten foe Indiana, 45-42, in the final seconds at home.
"I don’t know if we can give a team like Wisconsin trouble," Babers said. "I watched them play LSU on TV. Two of the finest football teams I’ve seen in a long time. This is a different situation. Wisconsin and Indiana are two different football teams.
"We’re going to go up there and we’re going to give it our best. We understand how good they are. We understand that they have a very good opportunity to win their side of the Big Ten division. This is a different football team than the team we played Saturday."
At least that point is true. Indiana operates out of a pass-heavy offense that attempts to run as many plays as possible. Wisconsin, meanwhile, uses a more traditional pro-style offense that focuses on dominating up front to create holes for its running game. And the two programs could not be more dissimilar in their Big Ten success (Indiana is 15-57 in conference play since 2005; Wisconsin is 48-24 during the same span with three Big Ten titles).
Where Bowling Green was able to run an astounding 113 plays for 571 total yards of offense against Indiana and its suspect defense, the Falcons are likely to encounter a more stern test on Saturday. And Bowling Green’s defense isn’t exactly The Steel Curtain. The Falcons are allowing 36.0 points per game, which included surrendering a dreadful 59 points against Western Kentucky in the season opener. Bowling Green’s pass defense (412 yards per game) ranks dead last in the FBS as well.
For those reasons and more, Babers was willing to offer up this assessment of how Bowling Green’s defensive front matched up with Wisconsin’s stout offensive line.
"I don’t think we match up with them," Babers said. "I think we’re going to have to find a way to figure out a way to stop them. I think those guys are huge. I think they’re big. I think they’re physical and they’re supposed to win their conference in the Big Ten. This is a big-time football team.
"Hey, I don’t know what our chances look like. I imagine they’re not good, but if you give us five flat rocks and a slingshot, maybe we’ve got a chance. It’s a David versus Goliath story. It’s going to be a heck of a job up there. We’ve got to see what we can do."
Yes, Babers invoked the old David and Goliath story, a cliched refrain head coaches from California to Maine have used to rally an underdog team. The question is: Does Bowling Green really have a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to pull off a victory?
For starters, Bowling Green’s offensive philosophy under Babers means the Falcons should always have at least a slight chance. Backup quarterback James Knapke, for example, set school records against Indiana for passing attempts (73) and completed passes (46) while making just the second start of his college career. Knapke threw for 395 yards and three touchdowns and was named the Mid-American-Conference offensive player of the week.
"I think that James is slowly growing up in the system and he’s doing a fine job for us," Babers said, before providing another comment for the quote book. "Hopefully we’ll be able to protect him enough that we can still have him for the MAC after this game is over."
The Falcons return tailback Travis Greene, who rushed for a school record 1,594 yards in 2013, when Bowling Green won the MAC championship. Greene is averaging 114.3 yards rushing per game this season and has four touchdowns. Top receiver Roger Lewis, a freshman, leads the team with 122.0 receiving yards per game. He caught 16 passes for 140 yards and the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds to play against Indiana.
"He’s as good of a true freshman wide receiver as I’ve seen out there this year playing," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "He’ s a very, very talented young man. A credit to the way they recruit. They’ll walk in here and they’re a championship team. They expect to win. They expect to play at a high level. I would expect nothing else out of them. They’re well coached."
The area in which Bowling Green excels offensively is in its ability to play at a breakneck pace. The Falcons’ 85 plays per game is tied for the sixth-most plays per game in the country. Yet Bowling Green’s average time of possession (25:24 per game) ranks No. 118 out of 125 FBS teams. The Falcons also rank No. 16 in the country in yards per game (520.7).
As a means of comparison, Wisconsin is averaging 65.5 plays per game and a time-of-possession of 31 minutes, 46 seconds (No. 37 nationally).
Babers is a proponent of using boxing metaphors to describe his team’s chances of beating a power-conference team, noting the Big Ten is a champion, while the MAC is seen more as a challenger in a 15-round heavyweight fight.
"They’re not going to give you the game," Babers said. "You’ve got to go out there, you’ve got to hit them and tackle them and try to score points and take it from the champ."
Maybe Babers’ self-deprecating humor, then, is all one big rope-a-dope. Or perhaps Bowling Green truly will be knocked out early against a superior opponent. Either way, Babers has made the week more fun. And he’s hopeful his team’s offense will help make Saturday’s game equally fun.