On the boad

Ohio junior running back Ja'Vahri Portis had the first touchdowns of his career with a pair of touchdown runs on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019 against Louisiana. 

ATHENS, Ohio — Welcome to The Wrap, where I put all my final thoughts, notes, stats and analysis about the most recent Ohio University football game in one place.

The Bobcats (1-3) dropped a 45-25 home game to visiting Louisiana (3-1) on Saturday inside Peden Stadium. The loss concluded Ohio’s non-conference regular-season schedule.

The big picture

It’s not full-fledged panic time for Ohio, but there were enough red flags on display on Saturday that many Ohio fans have already flipped the protective case up covering the proverbial button and have their hands poised ready to smash it.

The Bobcats aren’t there yet, by any means, the a three-touchdown home loss did sent a reverberation through the program. Ohio doesn’t have a conference loss yet, but suddenly is faced with the realization that the supposed gap between itself and the rest of the East Division is more like a slip of paper than a brick.

Senior QB Nathan Rourke, as even-keeled a player as I’ve seen at Ohio, had red-eyes and a downcast, hang-down demeanor afterward. He wasn’t happy with the result, with how the offense continued to have issues finding a rhythm or how he played.

Rourke managed to find one silver lining.

“Well we haven't played our best ball, and I think that the good thing about the teams that I've played on in the last few years is we peak later in the year,” Rourke said. “We start playing our best ball after non-conference games.”

But as much Rourke tried to fall on the sword afterward — he had four turnovers and said they were all his fault despite plenty of evidence to the contrary — I think he’s the least of OU’s concerns as it enters the bye week.

Here’s a look at those red flags that have Solich concerned as Ohio enters the bye week.

— Defensively, OU hasn’t been stout against the run. That aspect has been a constant through 14 years of a Jimmy Burrow-led defense, but it’s been decidedly hit-and-miss with new coordinator Ron Collins. Forget coverage busts, or explosive plays over the top, it’s the steady diet of inside zone runs that killing OU at the moment. The ‘Cats are last in the MAC in allowing 5.5 yards per carry.

— Turnovers, specifically the lack of them for the defense and the lack of impact plays in general. Ohio led the nation last year with 32 takeaways, but has just two after four games in 2019. Some of that is fumble luck regressing to the mean, and some of that is a veteran secondary not making enough plays on balls in the air, or a defensive front forcing teams into quick, ill-advised throws. Ohio’s -6 turnover ratio is also last in the MAC.

— The punt return game has had three huge turnovers in four games. Redshirt freshman Jerome Buckner was hit by a teammate for a muffed punt return in week 1. In week 2, at Pitt, Buckner was stripped during a return. Against Louisiana, Buckner didn’t run up to catch a low-liner of kick, then tried to track it down inside the 10, touched it but didn’t gather it in, and the turnover was basically a free seven points for the Cajuns. Might be time to try someone else as the top punt returner.

— The running game hasn’t been as good, explosive or efficient as OU had hoped. It’s led to some stalled early offense in games, which has led to deficits, which has led to more passing, and on Saturday it led to a frenzied comeback attempt that eventually crashed amid a spate of late turnovers. Injuries are a factor there as RBs Julian Ross and O’Shaan Allison were both out on Saturday, and the starter against ULL (De’Montre Tuggle) clearly wasn’t 100 percent. In addition, C Steve Hayes remains out.

That’s a lot of correcting and/or improvement to do before an Oct. 5 showdown game at Buffalo. No, OU hasn’t lost any ground in the MAC yet. But unless things change rapidly, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see Ohio’s ‘favorite’ status as a memory by Halloween.

5 Factors

Yes, the 5 Factors return for 2019. In short, these five aspects — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers — play a major role in deciding every football game. I’ll be piecing them together from the assortment of the usual post-game data and including them on a weekly basis moving forward. But first, a quick rundown of what each category is and means.

Efficiency is rated based on Success Rate. A play is a success if: it gains half the yards needed for a first down (or the end zone) on first down, it gains 75 percent of the yards needed on second down, or it gains the yards needed on third or fourth down.

Explosiveness is measured by big plays. For my tabulations, I’m counting ‘big’ plays as runs that cover at least 10 yards, or pass plays that gain at least 15.

Field position is simple; it’s the averaging starting field position for each team’s drives.

Finishing is measured by comparing the number of times a team gains a first down inside the opponent’s 40 against the number of points the team scores on that possession. Think red zone statistics, but with a wider range.

And lastly turnovers, which is a simple binary, who-had-more kind of tabulation.

Here’s how Ohio vs Louisiana graded out:

Success Rate — Ohio 39.4 percent; Louisiana 49.3 percent

Explosiveness — Ohio 11 chunk plays (16.6 percent); Louisiana 17 (22.7)

Field Position — Ohio 30, Marshall 33

Finishing — Ohio 8 chances/25 points = 3.1 per trip; Louisiana 8 chances/45 points = 5.6 per trip

Turnovers — Ohio 5, Louisiana 1

The red-letter items play off each other, and include the Finishing and Turnover categories.

Ohio matched ULL in terms of scoring chances, but turnover issues — particularly in the second half — doomed OU’s chances of making this a true shootout. The Bobcats had four second half turnovers, and three were interceptions all inside the Cajuns’ 40. Three prime scoring chances evaporated, and three momentum plays were taken advantage of by ULL.

It goes without saying, but it’s nearly impossible to win with a negative-4 turnover ratio in any single game but that’s what Ohio was faced with.

Even with that accounted for, OU had its hands full with the Cajuns on the ground throughout. Louisiana piled up a stellar 59.5 percent success rate on called running plays. That buoyed ULL’s overall Success Rate (49.3), which was the highest allowed by Ohio this season.

Ohio had success on 51.9 percent of its called runs, but that is misleading. That rate was just 33.3 percent in the first half, but increased dramatically in the second half as the score got away from the Bobcats a little bit and ULL was content to give up some yardage on the ground.

The Cajuns had 17 ‘chunk’ plays, and like the Thundering Herd the week before, most came on the ground. ULL had 12 impact runs on Saturday. Over the last two weeks, opponents have a ‘big’ play rate of 22.2 percent against OU — just about one every five offensive snaps.

With Louisiana — again like Marshall the week before — finding consistent success on the inside with the power running game, Ohio needed to make up for that in other areas. The Bobcats’ couldn’t force enough negative plays or turnovers, and couldn’t keep up offensively thanks to a passing success rate of 30.8 percent — its lowest of the season.

And if this was all TLDR for you, then consider this: the biggest single reason Ohio is 1-3 after four games is a negative-6 turnover ratio. If that doesn’t improve, the ‘Cats record won’t get much better either.

About the Cajuns

This is, obviously, a Bobcat-focused blog, publication and piece. But I did want to mention Louisiana briefly.

The Cajuns are pretty good. The ground game, with a stable of three powerful backs and an All-Sun Belt right side of the offensive line, is legit. The offensive scheme — lots of straight runs, quick screen throws to the outside and deep play-action threats down the field — is effective.

The Cajuns looked as talented as Ohio at most if not every position. And Louisiana was clearly more comfortable with what it is and what it can do than OU is at this point in the season.

There’s a reason the Cajuns were tabbed as favorites in their half of the Sun Belt. They have talent, experience and should be a contender.

Now, the Cajuns have their own issues and the Bobcats’ didn’t exploit them. Louisiana was guilty of 16 penalties for 161 yards, including 12 major ones. And the Cajuns defensive game plan — lots of man coverage with safety help over the top — offered up a chance for Ohio to take more vertical shots than it did.

There were plays and opportunities to be had, but — like the two previous weeks — the Bobcats missed out on a bunch of them.

Offensive notes

Rourke had his worst day as a Bobcat with 47.4 percent passing, and career-highs of four turnovers and three interceptions. He also missed a few potential chances for impact runs on read plays in the first half.

And Rourke tried to take all the blame for any offensive short-comings afterward.

"I take responsibility for all of them. I got to hang on to the ball in the pocket,” he said. “I have to put the ball in a better place to make plays and I got to set them up for success better."

The fourth-quarter fumble, that came as the pocket collapsed around him, falls on him surely. Rourke is so good at getting out of trouble sometimes he doesn’t accept the fact he’s ‘lost’ a play easily. It’s part of what makes him so dynamic.

His first interception, on a deflection on a cross route in the first half, probably also rests on his shoulders. Like in many 1H situations, the Cajuns didn’t blitz and there was more time than needed to throw the ball — but nowhere to go with it. Ohio’s receiving group had trouble all afternoon finding separation.

But his other two picks? Equal blame should fall on the targets of those plays as well, in my opinion. INT No. 2 was on a fade route to the right corner of the end zone, and WR Tyler Tupa had the ball initially in his hands. But the CB, to his credit, wrestled the ball away from Tupa as the pair fell to the turf for the interception.

The final INT, on a route down the left sideline to Isiah Cox, was another instance of a 50/50 ball that the WR failed to make a play on. Cox was covered, yes, but with Ohio trying to make something happen you can understand the throw. Again, OU lost a 50/50 type of ball and it became a turnover.

The running game was a non-starter most of the day. Ohio went with De’Montre Tuggle to start, and he he seemed a step slow, or a touch hesitant to attack any creases or bubbles in the front. There were not clear lanes, true, but Tuggle sometimes didn’t get the four or five years that appeared to be there.

RB Ja’Vahri Portis, meanwhile, ran hard and decisively. He attacked some of those same runs in the second half, and made something happen. He showed off some decent speed and power, and got a pair of touchdown runs.

The offensive line gave up two sacks, but wasn’t as challenged with the blitz as it was in the previous couple of weeks. Louisiana decided to cover more often than not, and that led to Rourke holding the ball longer than he wanted to on a few occasions.

In terms of play calls and balance, Ohio had 26 called runs compared to 40 called passes. It’s not a good split for the Bobcats, and was forced in part due to some inability early to run the ball and of course the score and time remaining in the second half later on.

Ohio also continued to shy away from the two tight end personnel grouping, and used it just 13.6 percent of the time after ramping up that look the game before at Marshall. Again, I think that’s more a reflection of the score/time as opposed to a purposeful game plan outlook.

Ohio had just three chunk runs, all in the second half, and didn’t fall into any obvious patterns in terms of first-down play calls. OU ran it 12 times on first down, and had 20 first down pass plays.

The Bobcats were good on third-and-short (3-6), and great at third-and-long (2-3), but continued a season-long funk on third-and-medium (0-6). With Rourke, a bevy of good slot receivers, and an emergent TE threat, I’d think those third-and-5s would be converted with more regularity.

Now for some individual thoughts, which have some positives, I promise:

— TE Ryan Luehrman had a big day with four catches for 69 yards. He had three chunk plays — catches of 21, 16 and 27 yards — including the only two for the entire offense in the first half. He ability to get vertical, down the seam, and finish the catch is the kind of aspect that has been absent in recent years for Ohio, and OU recognizes that. Tight ends have been targeted 21 times already this season.

— WR Shane Hooks has issues with consistency, with knowing what to do when a play breaks down, and mastering the ‘little’ things that go into the offense. But the redshirt freshman also provided a huge spark when he started getting major reps in the second half. He was targeted five times — the first came with less than 8 minutes left in the third quarter — and finished with three catches for 96 yards and a touchdown. All three grabs were big plays. The rate of return is exceptional, and his ability to win some of those jump-balls is something this offense needs at the moment.

— On the flip side, it appeared Ohio/Rourke did their best to get WRs Cameron Odom and Jerome Buckner on track early on, but it didn’t work. Odom was targeted a team season-high 10 times, but had just three catches for 26 yards. Buckner got five targets for one reception for four yards. Neither was targeted over the final quarter and a half.

— C Nick Sink made his second straight start at C, but the lack of movement generated inside against Louisiana is concerning. In general, I thought the OL was good in pass protection, but didn’t impact the defensive front in a way that Ohio needed it to early in the game.

— Ohio WRs did draw three defensive holding and three pass interference calls in the game, two were declined. Hooks drew two, Cox drew two and Tupa drew two.

— I mentioned Tuggle already, but getting the yards that are there on a run was one aspect that I though Allison excelled at in games 1-3. It was a missed aspect of the redshirt freshman’s game in the first half. Tuggle is explosive, and fast, but burrowing through for three-four tough yards aligns much tighter with Allison’s skill set.

— Just a reminder, Ohio managed to find only about eight reps for its backup quarterbacks throughout non-conference play.

Defensive notes

It was a classic game of two halves for the defense. In the first, Ohio took away Louisiana’s preferred play, racked up five stops on seven possessions and played what I thought was its best half of the season.

But the Cajuns adjusted, and the Bobcats faced major issues again.

Louisiana excels at the outside zone run, a stretch play where that big offensive line spaces the front out to set up cutback lanes for the back. OU stuffed that aspect in the first half.

Then the Cajuns went to the inside zone — which Marshall used effectively — and turned the game aroun. Louisiana averaged 4.9 yards per carry in the first half, 7.5 yards per carry in the second.

“We started the game running a little more outside zone and moving the front and cancelling the gaps. We ran into some disadvantaged looks in my opinion,” said Louisiana head coach Billy Napier. “They had a good plan and then we went to a little bit more inside zone in the second half. That proved to be a lot more effective.”

Ohio’s tackling, while not terrific, was better than it was the week before. There was some progress there. The bigger issue, in my opinion, was the number of free runs the Cajuns had in getting into the secondary.

Elijah Mitchell finished with 143 rushing yards on 17 carries for ULL. On 9 of his 17 attempts, he ran ‘clean’ — no cuts, no contact — into the secondary; that’s a 60 percent rate. Trey Ragas had 129 yards on 15 attempts; he ran ‘clean’ into the next level on 40 percent (6) of the time.

Yes, tackling is an issue. But so is finding a way to muddy the waters up front better. With the exception of senior DT Cole Baker, few of the Bobcats’ interior players did a good job of either holding up two blockers at the point of attack, or making an impact play at or near the line of scrimmage.

Solich saw it too.

“We have to come up with a way to stop the run,” he said. “We can't give up (a clean) 5 yards in the linebacking area and expect to have a good tackling day. We have to get things stopped better up front.”

The other issue with Ohio’s defense is forcing turnovers, and creating more havoc plays. Doing both were going to be tough with Louisiana’s approach — QB Levi Lewis had the ball in his hands less than two seconds on approximately 20 of his 29 passing attempts — and Ohio did land two sacks. Lewis was flustered a few times.

But finishing plays — such as contesting those few deep throws down the field — remained tough for Ohio.

The best example came with 6:35 left, Ohio trailing 31-25, and the Cajuns facing third and four from its own 31. Ragas went right on an outside zone play, and Ohio OLB Dylan Conner was there to meet him in the hole.

But Ragas landed a stiff arm, got by Conner and then exploded down the field for 34 yards. It was the back-breaking play of the day for the Bobcats, and came after a one-on-one opportunity in the hole that turned out the wrong way for OU.

“That's what really started everything,” senior safety Javon Hagan said.

Ohio had best figure out a way to deal with the inside zone, either with schemes or personnel changes. OU’s next two opponents — Buffalo and NIU — make that play a building block for what they do offensively.

Now for some specific observations:

— Hagan a team-high 12 tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. He was constantly involved in the running game, which speaks to the emphasis Ohio is putting in try to fix things up front.

— CB Marlin Brooks had five stops, two pass breakups and hurried the QB on a corner blitz once. He mis-timed his jump on a reverse-pass, he was in position to defend it I thought, and was caught once for pass interference. But, all told, I thought he held up well against ULL’s Ja’Marcus Bradley — a potential draft pick.

— The DT had a five-player rotation on Saturday. Baker (4 tackles, 1.0 TFL) was the standout, but Kai Caesar (1 tackle), Zach Burks (1 tackle) and starter Brian Arp (3 tackles) all struggled. On the flipside, backup Marcus Coleman (5 tackles) had perhaps the best game of his career and might warrant more reps.

— The linebacker group had a tough afternoon, and it wasn’t all their fault. MLB Jared Dorsa (7 tackles) was dealing with more traffic in the middle than ideal because of displacement issues up front. Conner (7 tackles) and Popp (7 tackles) not only had to be conscious of the quick-screen game on the edges, but also had to be exceptional at one-on-ones in the hole as there were few gang-tackles made in the second half.

— CB Jamal Hudson did not start for the first time this season, and Ohio provided no update as to whether it was a personnel decision, injury-based or for disciplinary reasons. Ilyaas Motley started in his place, and appears to be on equal footing with both Hudson and Brooks at the moment as OU tries to field a solid three-corner rotation.

— Ohio was solid on passing downs (36.4 percent success rate allowed) and exceptional again on third down with its ‘dime’ package. The Cajuns converted just 4 of 13 (30.8 percent) third downs.

— OU, in fact, was perfect on third downs longer than 4 yards (0-6). But the Cajuns ground game meant 4-for-7 on third and short, and the number of chunk runs allowed (12) often allowed ULL to eschew worrying about third down altogether.

Special Teams notes

PK Louie Zervos bounced back from a miss at Marshall, and hit his two longest FGs of the season — 48 and 49 yards.

P Michael Farkas wasn’t great, but above average with a 41.8 average and two punts downed inside the 20.

Ohio dodged one bullet with a flag wiping out a touchdown punt return, but gave up just four yards on four punt returns, and only 30 on a pair of kickoff returns.

DL Knock continues to do good work on kickoff returns (21.3 on three) and on cover units (3 special teams tackles in four games).

But the fly in the ointment is the punt return game. Buckner ranks third in the MAC in punt return average, but now has been involved in three turnovers on punt returns — cratering three precious defensive stops in the process.

Personnel/Injuries

Ohio has been much more closed about offering injury information, even when directly asked, this season.

But here’s the rundown from Saturday. RB Julian Ross (shoulder) was out for a second straight game, and C Steve Hayes (ankle) also missed his second consecutive games.

WRs Tupa and Odom were back in the lineup, and had normal reps. S Alvin Floyd was also back after a one-game absence and took part in special teams action.

The surprise before the game was DE Sam McKnight, who was a late scratch. It is believed to be injury related.

During the game, there were at least two noticeable injuries. Both DT Kai Caesar and DT Brian Arp left the game with what appeared to be lower leg issues. Caesar was able to return, but Arp did not.

Looking for more?

As always, if there’s specific information you’d like to see included in these catch-all reviews, or if you have specific questions about the Bobcats, feel free to let me know.

If I get a bunch of questions that require in-depth answers, I’m alway ready to do reader mailbag pieces.

You can reach me on Twitter (@JasonAmessenger) or via email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com.

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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