Thomas tackles challenges, quarterbacks for Bowling Green

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Bryan Thomas capped a frenzied first quarter by corralling Northern Illinois quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch for a two-yard loss during a key Bowling Green defensive stand in the Mid-American Conference championship game.

As soon as Thomas planted Lynch flat on the turf Dec. 6 at Ford Field in Detroit, the hulking 6-2, 257-pound redshirt junior defensive end turned toward the Bowling Green sideline and pointed at his teammates.

The gesture served as a sign Bowling Green’s defense came prepared for previously unbeaten Northern Illinois, which entered the MAC championship one win from a possible BCS bowl game, and served notice the former Wash High standout was fully recovered from a devastating knee injury suffered two seasons prior.

“I feel like I’m all the way back,” Thomas said Saturday afternoon after Bowling Green (10-3) completed a practice in preparation for the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl against Pitt (6-6) Thursday back at Ford Field.

“I’m finally trusting my knee. It took some time to get that back. I’m playing free with no worries.”

That’s welcome news for Bowling Green, which won its first conference championship since 1992, behind the nation’s fifth-best scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and unsettling word for the Panthers, who struggle to keep senior quarterback Tom Savage upright.

“The thing with Bryan is he’s a real hungry kid and he wants to be out there,” said Larry McDaniel, Bowling Green’s defensive line coach and Thomas’ mentor the past three years. “Last year, coming off the knee injury, he may have started back too soon. He rehabbed like crazy every day all with the hope of getting back, and it turned out he may have been a little early. Now, you’re seeing how a person who’s gutted it out and come to work every day can play.”

Thomas arrived at Bowling Green following a spectacular senior season at Washington, where he earned Associated Press Class AA All-State honors as a defensive lineman and an Observer-Reporter Elite 11 nod as one of the WPIAL’s premier two-way players. Thomas had 17 quarterback sacks as a senior, averaged 18.0 yards per catch at tight end and served as a key post player on a Prexies’ basketball team that reached the PIAA Class AA playoffs.

Following a redshirt year, Thomas earned playing time in his second year at Bowling Green before his season was cut drastically short in the Falcons’ third game against Wyoming.

“It was right before the half when somebody ran into my knee and tore it up pretty good,” Thomas said. “I knew it was bad and, I think like anybody else, I wondered if I would play again. I knew I had to work hard with the trainers, the coaches and by myself in the weight room. I’m a huge competitor. I had to get back out there.”

Borrowing characteristics Thomas cultivated growing up in Washington and honed playing football for Prexies coach Mike Bosnic, basketball for coach Ron Faust and participating in track, Thomas went to work with one goal in mind – returning for his redshirt sophomore season.

“I didn’t have a lot growing up, and my mom told me to work hard for everything,” Thomas said. “I gave it everything I had.”

Thomas returned last year and played in all 13 games for Bowling Green. He finished with 33 tackles, including 8 for losses, and 3 1/2 quarterback sacks.

Not bad for a player far from 100 percent.

“Every player from Western Pennsylvania that I’ve ever been around has been tough, and Bryan is tough. There’s no doubt about it,” McDaniel said. “This year, he’s been healthier than he’s ever been, and when he’s healthy, he plays at a different level.”

Thomas displayed that level in Bowling Green’s last two games – a 24-7 win at Buffalo and the Falcons’ resounding 47-27 victory in the MAC title game where it seemed ESPN cameras followed Thomas everywhere, mainly because he was in on nearly every defensive play for Bowling Green.

Thomas finished with six tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for loss and one hurry of Lynch against Northern Illinois. He had a sack and another 1 1/2 tackles for loss against Buffalo. For the season, Thomas has 33 tackles, 6 1/2 tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and a fumble recovery.

“The biggest thing for Bryan from a physical standpoint is to keep working on his flexibility and to continue rehabbing his knee,” McDaniel said. “With what he had done to his knee and the surgery he had, it’s important he maintain what he’s doing.”

Thomas’ ability to overcome obstacles had made the latest hurdles to clear seem like easy ones.

Shortly after Bowling Green won the conference title, Falcons head coach Dave Clawson accepted the same position at Wake Forest.

“We’re all happy for him. There’s no bad blood,” Thomas said. “His dream is to coach in a BCS conference just like all of us dream to play at the next level.”

For Thomas to get there, a solid performance against Pitt would look nice to prospective suitors.

And there’s some extra incentive for him despite Bowling Green being a solid favorite, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.

“Coming out of high school, Pitt didn’t offer me (a scholarship) and I feel like I’ve got a little something extra to prove,” said Thomas, who maintains friendships with Pitt receiver Kevin Weatherspoon and linebacker Adam Lazenga. “I’m looking forward to it. I have a lot of family on the Thomas side in Detroit. It’s going to be fun.”

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