BOWLING GREEN — Dino Babers wasn’t exactly a household name here when the news broke that he had been hired as the new head football coach at Bowling Green State University.
“We really didn’t know who he was,” BG quarterback Matt Johnson admitted. “So we all grabbed our laptops and went to Google. Pretty soon, I started getting texts. Our offensive guys were foaming at the mouth.”
The Falcons learned their new coach was a disciple of Baylor’s offensive system. They found out he had been head coach at Eastern Illinois for two years and that the offensive statistics had been video-game outrageous.
Forget Madden 14. Check out Babers 12 and 13.
While his offensive pals were foaming at the mouth, Johnson found a quiet corner, leaned back and took a deep breath.
“There was a little anxiety,” he admitted.
For Johnson, after a breakout season of his own, the arrival of a new coach with a new and dramatically different offense would mean starting over.
A year ago today, Johnson was the backup quarterback for the Falcons. He’d lost the preseason battle for the starting job. It was a setback that would last about 10 minutes.
Matt Schilz started the season-opener against Tulsa, but Johnson was in by the third series and he wouldn’t be coming out anytime soon. By the end of the season he had completed 64.2 percent of his passes for 3,467 yards and 25 touchdowns and the Falcons had won 10 games and a Mid-American Conference championship.
“Beating Pitt in the bowl game would have been nice,” Johnson said.
“Otherwise, yeah, it was pretty storybook.”
Meanwhile, at Eastern Illinois, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was ending a two-year, 26-game run under Babers with 8,873 passing yards and 84 touchdowns. No, that’s not a misprint — 84.
Then Dave Clawson left BG to become head coach at Wake Forest, Babers left Eastern Illinois for BG, and Johnson found a quiet corner and took a deep breath.
“Yeah, to some degree,” he said. “I was three years into [Clawson’s] system, I understood it, I’d gotten comfortable with it. Now, a new coach. But, you know, football plays are football plays. I’ve been together with our offensive players for awhile. So the only real adjustment is learning all the new plays.”
Well, yes and no.
Plays are plays, although there are a lot of them in this system and they are run at rapid-fire pace.
Onto the field, into the end zone, back to the bench, all as quickly as possible, is the premise.
For it to work well, Johnson has to learn not only plays, but he must learn and understand Babers and his passing game coordinator, Sterlin Gilbert.
“The biggest thing is to make sure he thinks the way we think,” Babers said. “You’re talking about a guy who was trained by someone else and [we] have to retrain him. I think he has really, really attacked this thing. He’s doing fine.”
In fact, Babers added, “If you ask me where he started and where Jimmy Garoppolo was at this time, I think they are similar.”
Johnson’s eyebrows lifted when that comment was repeated to him.
“That means a lot,” Johnson said. “I mean, the guy was drafted in the second round by the Patriots. I’ve seen the films. He was tremendous and his knowledge of the offense was unbelievable.”
But, fact is, it took Garoppolo and the players around him a while to fully figure it out too. His season splits under Babers were 3,873 yards passing as a junior and 5,050 as a senior. He threw for 31 and 53 touchdowns, respectively.
BG fans are pretty excited about this FalconFast stuff they’ve been hearing about and, yes, the team is the preseason pick to repeat as MAC champion, in large part because of the anticipated offensive wizardry. But …
“Honestly, it’s potential, it’s what the numbers could be,” Johnson, a junior, said. “I could throw for 4,000-5,000 yards. We could have three or four receivers with 1,000 yards. But that’s all could-be stuff.
“Coach has said it might take a year, even a year and a half, to get this working. So we can’t go chasing those numbers yet. The whole thing is tempo. Eastern Illinois’ tempo in coach Babers’ second year was incredible. That’s going to take awhile, I think.
“I’m trying to learn all I can from [Babers] and from coach Gilbert. I want to know everything about the offense; why they’re calling certain things in certain situations. I want to get to the point where I know what they’re going to call, and why, before they even call it.”
Johnson may be starting over, but it sounds as if he has already crawled inside Babers’ head. And vice versa.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.