Matt Johnson’s passing numbers would make most Bowling Green loyalists scream for more playing time for the backup, but sometimes it takes only a few plays to springboard a team to victory.
In Friday’s 24-7 victory over the University at Buffalo, which gave the Falcons the Mid-American Conference East Division title, Johnson was a pedestrian 11 of 26 passing. But one play with his legs, and a few more with his arm, lifted Bowling Green into the MAC Championship Game next week in Detroit against Northern Illinois.
The momentum changer came in the third quarter with Bowling Green leading, 10-7. UB’s Tyler Grassman kicked a 47-yard punt to the BG 7, then right tackle Logan Dietz was called for a false start, pushing the Falcons back to their own 4. Here’s where the fun begins.
The play called for a handoff to tailback Travis Greene off tackle, but Johnson noticed a UB defender coming down hard ready to gobble up the play, which forced Johnson into improvisation on a zone read down the right sideline.
“All game they were closing down and closing down so the linebacker closed down far enough that I was able to pull the ball,” Johnson said.
Wideout Heath Jackson, all 5-foot-11, 187 pounds of him, threw a block on the outside to free Johnson who was finally caught at UB’s 40. Six plays later, Greene scored from 14 yards out and Bowling Green had a 17-7 lead.
“That really did give us some momentum because we were backed up, we just had a penalty I think we were on our four-yard line so, yeah, it was a big spark for us,” Johnson said.
Johnson waited patiently for his moment, knowing it would come eventually.
“It was something I saw all game from the start,” he said. “Whenever we were in the shotgun they were closing down pretty hard, tackling, trapping from the backside pretty good. So I was just remembering that all game and kind of just waited for the right time. The linebacker and defensive end closed hard enough and it was just a reaction, just pull the ball, don’t let Travis get tackled for no gain and Heath made a great block to spring me.”
The play caught Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson off guard.
“That was traditionally a play that we don’t read but he saw the backside guy crash and so it’s really a heads-up play by him,” he said. “He kind of incorporated that part in on his own and we give him that freedom but I was surprised because with the play call, we generally don’t read that and it was really a heads-up play by a really smart football player.”
UB plays an aggressive, attacking defense and it paced the MAC in sacks with an average of 3.18 per game. The heat was coming, so Bowling Green has to pick its spots in the passing game.
“The key was to make some big ball catches against them,” Clawson said. “We were going to throw the ball deep and some of those balls had to be caught deep down the field. They were pressing us and blitzing us and this was going to be a game where we had to make some plays over the top.”
Three long passes stand out, all on third down and each one to wideout Shaun Joplin: a 31-yarder in the third quarter, the 23-yard touchdown pass that gave the Falcons the lead for good at 10-7 in the third and a fourth quarter strike for 62 yards that set up a TD run.
“Buffalo is a great third and long defense,” Clawson said. “The amount of turnovers and sacks and strips they get on third down, that is a major part of their defense. ... Buffalo was very clearly going to pressure us, they were going to play press man and dare us to throw the ball deep. They had no reason to not do it in the first half and then in the second half we made some plays. ... If we don’t make those plays it’s a different game.”
Joplin finished with five receptions for 139 yards in the second half alone.
“My job was pretty much to throw the ball up there and let him make a play,” Johnson said. “When Jop’s on his game he can come down with anything.”