MONTGOMERY, Ala – Nobody in the Bowling Green locker room – and probably darn fans few in the stands, campus or Falcon enclaves around the world – was likely thinking about the three loss-skein BGSU brought to this year’s Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. No, the thoughts were more likely about the dramatic roller-coaster finish that saw Bowling Green emerge with a with a thrilling 33-28 victory over South Alabama.
"I wish I could take your TV camera into that locker room with me before I walked back over here (for postgame interviews) and let it run for about five minutes and hand you the tape, every time somebody wants to eliminate a bowl like this," Dino Babers said in response to a question about the new bowl. "To end the season with a bowl win and to end the season with an opportunity to play in a bowl is a fabulous gift to student-athletes."
The Falcons bowl challenge was made more formidable by the fact that the game was played in Montgomery, just a few hours from the University of South Alabama campus. Thousands of Jaguar fans had packed the Crampton Bowl stadium. USA, down 20-7 at one point rewarded them by scoring three of the next four touchdowns.
South Alabama rose to the occasion, stopping Travis Green short of the goal on three straight runs. Facing fourth down, head coach Dino Babers elected go for a Tyler Tate field goal that would have put his team up by nine. The Falcon season and career record holder, however, missed left from point-blank range.
South Alabama picked up two first downs before punting and BGSU went three-and-out. The left the Jaguars 73 yards to cover with 4:13 remaining. Bridge’s 44-yard pass to Danny Woodson on the first play got the drive going and seven plays later Terrance Timmons went off the left side for three yards and the touchdown. Aleem Sunanon’s PAT put the Jaguars up 28-27, sending USA players, coaches and fans into a virtual frenzy with just 1:20 remaining. Even Jags coach Joey Jones, injured on a freakish sideline play, was waving his bloodied towel.
The excitement, however, switched sides in one play from scrimmage. Quarterback James Knapke turned the ensuing possession into a one-play drive as he connected with freshman Roger Lewis down the middle for a 78-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion try failed.
South Alabama’s final possession also lasted one play as senior DB Jude Adjei-Barimah came up with an interception along the right sideline. Bowling Green ran out the clock to preserve its first bowl victory since a 2004 GMAC Bowl win over Memphis in Mobile, Ala.
Bowling Green ended up with just one more first down (24-23) than the Jaguars, but it owned advantages in total yards (500-415) and time of possession. Turnovers also worked to the Falcons favor as they won that battle (1-4)
Knapke earned Bart Starr MVP honors after completing 25-of-39 for 368 yards and two TDs with no interceptions.
"What a story," Babers said. "How he (Knapke) started (playing in) the first game, finishing up the WKU game, started the VMI game, big win over Indiana. Takes us to a 5-2 record, then we have a little bit of a slide. Still win the East, still get to the MAC Championship Game, then we have a bowl game like this. Man, who would have ever thunk that his name would be underneath Bart Starr for the MVP of this bowl game in its inaugural year? That's an OMG right there."
Two BGSU receivers eclipsed 100 yards. Lewis had four receptions for 137 yards with two touchdowns. He registered 1,093 yards in his inaugural season, becoming just the seventh player in school history to have a 1,000-yard season. He was the first freshman to pull it off.
Gehrig Dieter caught seven balls for 108 yards. Three other Falcons had at least three receptions and totaled another 126 yards.
Fred Coppet (16 carries, 70 yards) and Green (20 carries, 41 yards, 2 TDs) led the rushing attack, which totaled 131 yards.
The 2014 season finishes on a high note with the win, a season which was full of milestones for the Bowling Green State University football program:
*Eight wins for third straight season
*MAC East champions – back-to-back seasons
*MAC Championship Game appearance – back-to-back seasons for first time in school history
*First bowl win since 2004
*First win over Big Ten Conference opponent since 2007
*Winningest senior class – 31 career wins – since 2005
Bridge completed 20-of-37 for 279 yards with 1 TD and 2 interceptions for South Alabama, a SunBelt school that started football in 2009 and replaced Florida International the “youngest” program to reach a bowl game. Woodson’s 122 yards on 6 catches paced the receivers.
Kendall Houston (5 carries, 53 yards, 1 TD) and Bridge (16 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD) led USA rushing.