Talking it over

Ohio OT Austen Pleasants (right) hugs WR D.L. Knock prior to the Bobcats' 33-31 loss at Marshall on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va — 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.

This is designed to be a bit of a catch-all following each Bobcat outing in 2019.

So let’s dive into Ohio’s 33-31 loss at Marshall.

The big picture

When I was laying out my game-by-game predictions for the Bobcats in 2019, I had OU at 1-2 at this point in the season. So, in a way, the Bobcats’ status right now is not a surprise.

I saw a team with a pretty young group on offense going on the road in consecutive weeks to take on a defending divisional champ from the ACC, and then a Conference-USA preseason favorite in a stadium where The Herd win 83 percent of their games.

So losing both of the last two games isn’t a shocker, or a sign of doom for OU in 2019 season.

But here’s what has been surprising. First, Ohio’s offense is clicking at a level a notch better than I anticipated despite some early-season injuries. And second, the defense stumbled in a way I didn’t expect at Marshall.

Ohio’s defense was solid in week one, and did a tremendous job of keeping the ‘Cats in the game at Pitt. But in getting creased — repeatedly between the tackles — by the Herd, Ohio showed a vulnerability that I didn’t think would be evident this year.

The missed tackles, the ground surrendered in the middle of the line, the 300-yards rushing allowed, all of those things have been in short supply for Ohio during much of Frank Solich’s 15-year run.

Pass plays are going to happen. Ohio’s secondary rounded into shape last year, but losing on the occasional deep throw is part-and-parcel to playing defense in college football today.

But OU’s inability to hold up at the point of attack, or to seriously threaten the pocket and Marshall QB Isaiah Green, was a 1-2 punch that can’t continue if the ‘Cats want to win the MAC East this season.

Was the performance on Saturday night in Huntington a one-off, or a sign of things to come? Solich and first-year defensive coordinator Ron Collins think it’s the former. The more pessimistic side of the fan base is talking itself into the latter.

The offense is coming along nicely with a plethora of young talent performing above my expectations so far. I believe the defense can turn the corner, but the clock is ticking.

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 at Marshall graded out:

Success Rate — Ohio 44.6 percent; Marshall 45.1 percent

Explosiveness — Ohio 10 (1/5.7 plays); Marshall 16 (1/4.6)

Field Position — Ohio 28, Marshall 27

Finishing — Ohio 5 chances/24 points = 4.8 per trip; Marshall 6 chances/27 points = 4.5 per trip

Turnovers — Ohio 1, Marshall 0

I was surprised Marshall’s offensive success rate wasn’t higher, but the quarter breakdowns illustrated how thoroughly the Herd won the second and the fourth.

In the second quarter, when Marshall turned a 10-10 tie into a 27-17 halftime lead, the Herd was successful on running plays 63 percent of the time. Nearly all of those 2Q runs were simple inside zone schemes.

In the fourth, after Ohio took a 31-27 lead, the Herd again found success on the ground and had a success rate of 63.6 percent on its final 11 running plays — most of which came in the final clock-killing drive.

Ohio’s offense put up decent numbers given being on the road and playing without up to five potential starters. The run success rate (41.9 percent) wasn’t up to the usual standard, but it should be noted Marshall was much better than that AT Boise State the week before.

The other thing that stood out was turnovers. Ohio, remember, forced 32 turnovers in 2018. Through three games this season, the Bobcats have forced just one.

“We have created a turnover in I don’t know how long,” Solich muttered afterward.

Offensive notes

QB Nathan Rourke, as has been the case throughout his career, bounced back from a ‘poor’ rushing game with a big one. He rushed for 118 yards — his eighth 100-yard game of his career — despite not keeping a read play until the second half.

I don’t know if Rourke was told to avoid keepers on the read early on or not. But the offense opened up in the second half when he started to.

Ohio did try an assortment of QB draws, to little effect, but it was Rourke’s first read keeper (22 yard gain) that got OU started in the second half. His 72-yard touchdown on a speed option keeper was beautifully executed and looked like it might be enough to steal a win.

After not running one single play with two tight ends on the field at Pitt, Ohio dialed up much more with the ’12’ personnel package at Marshall. The two TE look — with Adam and Ryan Luehrman — was used roughly 33 percent of the time; the Success Rate breakdown was 42.1 percent with two TEs, and 44.7 percent with three wide receivers.

The OL and RBs were much better this week against a steady diet of blitzes. The Herd didn’t notch a single sack, and had just 2.0 tackles for loss. Ohio wasn’t surprised by any of the defensive looks it saw, Rourke was exceptional with his in-pocket movement, and the RBs were better at meeting the blitzes near the line of scrimmage instead of deeper in the pocket.

Ohio notched 10 ‘chunk’ plays, and got back to making some big plays on the ground. Rourke, RB O’Shaan Allison and RB De’Montre Tuggle all notched impact runs, and Ohio had 223 yards rushing (7.2 average) against what I suspect will be one of the better run defenses in C-USA this season.

Now for some individual thoughts and breakdowns:

— RB O’Shaan Allison started his third straight game but was knocked out fo the game in the fourth with an injury. It’s a shame as Allison had the best game of his young career. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry, developed a rhythm between the tackles, and as noted earlier was much better in the blocking part of his game.

— Tuggle was held in check — 4.5 yards per carry on 10 tries — but took strides in pass protection. Of course, he scored again. Tuggle’s nifty one-handed catch led to an 18-yard touchdown and gave the junior four scores in three games to start his career.

— Junior C Nick Sink stepped in for starter Steve Hayes, and did an admirable job. The Bobcats didn’t roll over the Herd by any means, but he played a part in keeping Rourke relatively clean and certainly helped the ground game get back on track.

— WR Shane Hooks notched the first touchdown catch of his career after he held on for a 20-yard score despite a wicked hit in the ribs. He also blocked a cornerback into the bench area to clear the way for Rourke’s long TD run.

— WR Isiah Cox led all Ohio receivers nine targets, and had four catches for 61 yards. Much like Buckner and Hooks, Cox has a huge upside. Like the other two, I think he’s just getting started.

— TE Ryan Luehrman had a career-night with five targets, four catches and 60 yards. He hauled in a 36-yarder on a gadget play, and for the second time in three games caught a touchdown on a short fade from inside the 10. That figures to be one of Ohio’s go-to red-zone options this season.

Defensive notes

I won’t dive too deeply into the problems for Ohio on Saturday, which were fairly self-evident. The Bobcats didn’t tackle well enough. Period.

Marshall’s 305 rushing yards were the most allowed by Ohio in nearly four years. Tackles were missed repeatedly, the QB keeper was not played correctly by the backside defensive end at least four times by my count, and Ohio failed to get a sack and had just 2.0 tackles for loss.

The Bobcats did pressure the pocket, however, and the defense was credited with 12 quarterback hurries, led by DE Austin Conrad (3).

But OU is not finishing those pressures with plays. The ‘Cats broke up just one pass, haven’t forced a fumble in three games and the sacks/TFL count is too low for what Solich and DE coach Pete Germano were hoping to see this season.

As for Marshall, Doc Holliday pulled out all the stops. Depending on your definition, the Herd used between four and seven ‘trick’ plays. There was the Wildcat QB looks, a Statue of Liberty play, a Hook-and-Lateral gimmick, and a tricky motion play — with an OT lined up out wide — that sprung a 22-yard TD to an uncovered TE.

But it was the steady diet of inside zone, and the QB read, which did the most damage. Sometimes the opponent gets you with a great call, or a play it hadn’t shown before. But OU knew about the inside zone, but too often couldn’t stop it.

The Bobcats will have to get better even if few of the OLs it will face this season will be able to match the ability of the Herd’s front five.

Now for some specific observations:

— S Javon Hagan had a team-high 12 tackles, which isn’t ideal. Fellow safety Jarren Hampton had 11. That indicated that Herd runners were able to get to the second-level unencumbered much too often.

— Ohio is using nickel and dime packages much more often in 2019. This is likely a noticeable change due to the change in coordinators. Jimmy Burrow stuck with the base personnel package nearly 100 percent of the time over the last three seasons. But Ron Collins has used a nickel (Ilyaas Motley) and dime (Motley and extra LB Jack McCrory, with a DL off the field) package about 20 percent of the time.

— CB Marlin Brooks has a rough couple of weeks. He appeared to be on the hook for a long TD breakdown at Pitt, and he fell down in man coverage on the Herd’s game-winning touchdown on Saturday.

— In Ohio’s scheme, the weak side LB is typically one of the best run-stoppers on the team. But with the Herd running about 62 percent of the time, WLB Eric Popp had just four assisted tackles. Why? Marshall’s interior line was able to handle and then displace the Ohio DTs often enough to allow blockers to drift into the linebacker depth area.

— One member of the DL that has stood out early this season has been DT Cole Baker. He’s been effective in every game so far and Saturday was no different. He had six tackles, tied for the high on the DL, and had two QB hurries.

— Ohio has rotated heavily on the DL so far this season, with 10 players appearing there in each of the first three games. The Bobcats apparently have depth, but with the need for more impact plays it’ll be interesting to see if that rotation is shortened.

Special Teams notes

Ohio held it’s own on special teams, and but two plays loomed large at the end.

Redshirt freshman Jerome Buckner has been terrific on punt returns (10+) through three games, but his fumble on a 13-yard return at Marshall was the only turnover of the night.

Louie Zervos, iced on consecutive timeouts from Holliday, missed a 43-yard field goal at the end of the first half. OU, of course, lost by two.

But Michael Farkas was solid on punts and kickoff returns. In fact, Marshall had just 23 return yards — combined — the entire night.

And D.L. Knock, with a 27.0 average on five returns, showed well as the preferred returner on kickoffs.

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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