BOWLING GREEN — An orange-and-brown mass of humanity at midfield told the story.
Following nine years of losing to Toledo — and more than three years of losing in general — Bowling Green finally had its moment.
From the beginning of the week until the final whistle, everything seemed to align perfectly for the Falcons in their 20-7 upset of Toledo in 2019. The student section flooded the field for a massive celebration with the Battle of I-75 Trophy. Coaches hugged. Players shed tears of joy.
It was a day Bowling Green won’t soon forget — and a fleeting feeling the Falcons would like to experience again.
“I’ve never seen so many smiling faces in my life, man,” Bowling Green senior linebacker Kholbe Coleman said. “People I didn’t know were hugging me. People I knew were crying in my face.
“I just want to relive it. I would relive that day every day if I could.”
As Bowling Green begins the 2020 season tonight, ironically against Toledo because of the coronavirus-shortened season, its 2019 victory remains the bellwether day in its effort to return the program to competing in the Mid-American Conference again.
Since 2013, BG has had seven head coaches, including interim coaches, more than any other FBS team. And since the Falcons won the MAC in 2015, they’ve lost more games by 20 or more points (21) than they’ve won (12).
But for a week last season, all felt right.
Practice was crisp, the Falcons played their most complete game in years, and they scored their biggest win of the new era.
“That was the first time I ever felt that here at Bowling Green,” redshirt sophomore receiver Julian Ortega-Jones said. “It really showed us how good it is to beat our rival. I want that feeling every week, whether it’s our rival or not.”
Bowling Green coach Scot Loeffler accepted the job in November 2018, knowing full well his staff was undertaking a project that would take at least three recruiting classes to patch.
But in the meantime, they hoped for a result like the Toledo win.
“A lot of those guys have been through very difficult times at Bowling Green. They’d never won,” Loeffler said. “For those guys to accomplish something that big on that stage versus a great team in a great rivalry, I was so happy for them.”
Unfortunately for the Falcons, the result didn’t lead to more winning.
While BG’s coaches hoped defeating Toledo would be a turning point, the Falcons ended the season by being outscored 252-99 in the final six games, during which BG went 1-5.
Loeffler said BG’s next challenge is to prepare for every opponent like it prepared for Toledo, but the Falcons fell back into old habits after the game last year.
“I was under the impression that the next Tuesday practice would have been hair on fire,” Loeffler said. “But it wasn’t, and I couldn’t figure that out. It’s the piece that we’re missing and the next step we need to take.”
Loeffler said the difficulty in creating a championship-caliber team is that nearly all of BG’s players never have played on a winning college team. The last remnants of BG’s 2015 team graduated after last season, and the current roster is made up predominantly of first or second-year players.
Competing every week — and not just against a rival — is a 365-day task, Loeffler said.
“You’re competing to win a Mid-American Conference championship on Jan. 15 when it’s blowing like hell and we don’t even know football exists besides pro football,” he said. “That’s where we need to get.”
In a year that will be measured by improvement, Bowling Green sees an important first chance against a rival on Wednesday.
“For it to be the opening game of the season, it’s a statement game,” Ortega-Jones said. “We can come out and really show who we are, show how talented we are, and show how much this team improved.”
And after winning in 2019, the Falcons hope for another taste of victory against Toledo.
BG is a clear underdog again — 22 points after being 26 1/2-point underdogs last year — but the Falcons hope to recreate history.
“We came out and we shocked the world,” Ortega-Jones said. “We’re ready to do it again.”