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 (2-4, 1-1 MAC) were upended on Homecoming, 39-36, by Northern Illinois (2-4, 1-1 MAC) on Saturday inside Peden Stadium.
The Big Picture
Ohio hits crisis-mode right on schedule in 2019. The home loss was a stunner — the second straight setback inside Peden for OU — and throws the Bobcats right back into familiar, no-wiggle room, territory.
Under Frank Solich, Ohio has started MAC play 2-0 just four times in 15 seasons. The early loss in conference play has been consistent, and at times the Bobcats have erased the early loss with a run of wins through the middle part of the schedule.
But the loss hits too close to home for many Ohio fans. It’s eerily representative of last year’s 24-21 loss at NIU that left OU out of the MAC title game after a loss later in the season to Miami. Ditto for two years ago when CMU beat OU 26-23 in Peden on Homecoming.
The loss means a couple of things for OU over the second half of the season. First, the MAC East title chase is now in must-win territory. A loss this weekend to Kent State — already one game up on the ‘Cats in the standings — would likely doom Ohio in its pursuit of a spot in the MAC title game. And second, Ohio realistically has to go 5-1 over the final six games to ensure it gets a bowl game. MAC teams have little luck in securing a bowl bid at 6-6, and conventional wisdom holds that if a MAC team wants a bowl it better get to seven wins.
As for the game, the reasons for the loss were clear. First, OU gifted NIU seven points early on with a blocked punt — the first allowed by Ohio in seven years. Second, the defense imploded in the second half.
NIU entered the game ranked 10th in the MAC in scoring, and 11th in rushing. The Huskies didn’t get a single drive into the red zone in the first half.
But that didn’t matter in the second half when NIU engineered five straight touchdown drives. NIU had just 10 red zone possessions in its first five games, but then had four over the last 20 minutes on Saturday.
Ohio gave up a higher rate of big plays in the pass game than it had in any game this season, and then in the second half reverted to form defensively agains the run. NIU was able to grind away the clock — as well as yards and points — in the second half with running production it hadn’t shown all season.
Ohio’s offense was on point, except for a three-possession stretch in the third quarter, but ultimately it’s the failure to get one defensive stop that will have the Bobcats ruminating about this one for a while.
It’s not a sunny forecast for Ohio either. The Bobcats now have to, realistically, win six in a row to lock up the division, and have to do it with a defense that has proven incapable of getting stops when it matters all season long.
Add in the usual injury concerns at this time of year, and yes, it might be time to hit that panic button.
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 NIU graded out:
Success Rate — Ohio 53.0 percent; NIU 44.1 percent
Explosiveness — Ohio 14 chunk plays (21.2 percent); NIU 12 (16.9)
Field Position — Ohio 31, NIU 23
Finishing — Ohio 5 chances/29 points = 5.8 per trip; NIU 8 chances/39 points = 4.9 per trip
Turnovers — Ohio 0, NIU 1
Well, this was a first in my 3-plus years of charting this kind of data for the Bobcats. For the first time, a team that ‘won’ each of the 5 Factor categories failed to win the game.
Offensively, it was Ohio’s best game of the season against an FBS opponent both in terms of efficiency, raw point total and in percentage of offensive snaps that resulted in big plays. The Bobcats were ahead of NIU in all three counts.
The Huskies had more scoring chances — 8 to 5 — but OU was more efficient in turning those into more points. Ohio created the game’s only turnover, and in fact it was the first game this season where the Bobcats won the turnover battle. The field position was even slightly tilted in OU’s favor.
So how did NIU pull off the road win? The Huskies had the single biggest play in the game early with a blocked punt that was turned into an instant touchdown. After that point — it came on the fourth play of scrimmage — Ohio had to be seven points better than NIU the rest of the way. Essentially, the Bobcats were only four points better.
And second, NIU clustered most of its offense over a five-possession span to end the game. The Huskies got four straight touchdown drives, then a clock-killing final drive to set up the game-winning field goal on the last play of the game.
The Huskies were ‘perfect’ offensively over the last 25 minutes or so, and Ohio had just enough hiccups — three scores drives in the third quarter — that made coughing up an 11-point halftime lead possible.
There was lots to like from the Bobcats on this side, but let’s deal with the bad stuff first.
Ohio had trouble dislodging the Huskies in the middle and was unable to get the consistent 3-4 four yards on the belly series that was the staple of the offense the week before at Buffalo. Don’t forget, NIU stuffed Ohio on third-and-short on the opening series to set up the blocked punt. OU adjusted, mainly by killing NIU with a steady dose of the speed and read options, but the inability to plow the middle led to fewer opportunities for RB O’Shaan Allison to get into a real rhythm and for Ohio to control the pace and flow of the game.
Ohio’s three empty offensive trips to start the second half were the result of NIU going to a heavy blitz approach. It gummed up the middle against the run, and got enough pressure on QB Nathan Rourke to force just a couple of stops. Ultimately, it was enough.
Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin later said NIU played more Cover 0 — man across the board for every receiver and everyone else blitzes — than he’d seen in a while. OU eventually adjusted but not before the game tightened and NIU got on track offensively.
Ohio’s approach was pretty similar to what we’d seen all season although there was a slight skewing toward called passes (32 called runs to 35 called passes). The Bobcats were nearly 50/50 on run/pass on first down, but OU did use more two tight end looks (34.8 percent of offensive snaps compared to 16 percent the week before) in its personnel selection.
And there was a lot to like in the offensive performance. Rourke completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 258 yards and two TDs against the top-ranked pass defense in the MAC. Ohio gained 5.2 yards per carry on the ground. The Bobcats, excepting the 0-for-3 stretch in the third quarter, were exceptional on third down (50 percent). Despite the extensive blitzing, NIU recorded just two sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss.
The Bobcats even dusted off some of their exotic play calls in the red zone with two WR reverse pass plays and an offensive-tackle lateral play — two of which went for touchdowns.
And the ‘Cats were at their best late. OU scored 15 points and had more than 140 yards on two fourth-quarter drives that needed just a combined 12 plays to find the end zone.
If Ohio had won the game, you’d be hearing about how the offense — despite a tremendous amount of graduation turnover from a year ago — was on track and ready to take another step forward.
Now for some individual thoughts:
— Redshirt freshman WR Shane Hooks is the No. 1 wideout of the future, and probably the present, for OU. He was dynamic is several aspects against NIU; he blocked well on the perimeter for the options plays, he made three tough catches on third down where he completed the catch despite tight coverage, and he got downfield for a game-tying touchdown late. His seven catches for 131 yards were both career highs and signaled a coming out party for him. Hooks had two penalties, and one — offensive pass interference when he was blocking for what he thought was a screen pass — was purely a mental/inexperience mistake. Scrub those out of his game, and Hooks could be one of the best in the conference.
— Junior TE Ryan Luehrman had another impactful game with four catches for 53 yards and a touchdown. He was just behind only Hooks (8) and Cameron Odom (7) with six targets. Luehrman is tied for second on the team with 24 yards, and tied for the team lead in receptions and touchdowns.
— Nathan Rourke had his best game of the season. His 340 combined yards (rushing, passing and receiving) were a season high, as were his four total touchdowns. It was his ninth game at Ohio with four or more touchdowns in a single game. It was also the second time in his career that he threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass. He was dynamic in the run game — four big runs — decisive in the air, and gave OU a chance down the stretch.
— Allison split more carries this week with RB Julian Ross, who returned after a three-game absence due to injury. Allison was effective (79 yards on 11 carries) but didn’t get into much of a rhythm. Ross was less effective (26 yards on nine carries) and clearly looked like a guy trying to knock some rust off.
— C Steve Hayes blended seamlessly back into the starting lineup after missing three games with injury. He, like guards Brett Kitrell and Hagen Meservy, had his hands full with NIU’s DT rotation however.
— Ohio would love to get more returns on the targets for Odom and WR Isiah Cox this season. Cox (29 targets) and Odom (24) have both been heavy rep players offensively, but haven’t impacted the game to the degree that Hooks (for example) has. Cox (15 catches-200 yards) is due for a breakout kind of game, and the same goes for Odom (10-113) who has battled through a couple of different injury issues this season.
Through two quarters, Ohio had to feel good about the state of its defense.
Two quarters later, and the Bobcats were scrambling for answers.
And the turning point was as clear as a neon sign.
In the third quarter, NIU was staring at second-and-10 from its own eight-yard line…but DE Amos Ogun-Semore was called for roughing the passer. The penalty bailed NIU out of a tough situation.
On the next snap, with designated running QB Marcus Childers in the game, Ohio called a Cover 0 blitz. But, the Huskies won the point of attack over the left guard and Childers exploded down the middle of the field for a 70-yard gain.
After that point, Ohio was disorganized and ineffective defensively. The mistakes came via the usual assortment of sources — failing to tackle in space, failing to react and make a play on the ball in the air, failing to cover gaps — and led to the Huskies picking up steam.
NIU had just 10 red zone possessions in the first five games, but then had four — plus a 30-yard touchdown play — on its final five possessions against OU. NIU was 10th in the MAC in scoring, and piled up 32 offensive points. The Huskies were 11th in rushing, and had 169 rushing yards on 5.5 yards per carry. NIU averaged 7.2 yards per play, the most an opponent has earned all season against OU.
NIU converted 10 of 16 third downs; it was the first time an opponent had converted more than 50 percent since the Miami loss in 2018 and just the second time it had happened in the last 16 games.
Against a team that had been limited offensively, Ohio allowed a 100-yard rusher (Tre Harbison, 113 yards), a 300-yard passer (Ross Bowers, 338) and two 100-yard receivers (Cole Tucker, 118; TE Mitch Brinkman 5-100).
It’s hard to categorize the performance as anything other than disappointing for a group that thought it had started to turn the corner the week before.
The Bobcats did make a few more plays. DE’s Ogun-Semore and Will Evans both notched sacks, and OU finished with 8.0 tackles for loss. Ohio created its fourth turnover of the season and had two pass breakups.
But the point remains that in each game this season the Ohio defense has been put in a position where the team needed a critical fourth-quarter stop and the Bobcats failed to deliver.
Improvement isn’t linear, it’s not a straight ever-upward trajectory. There are ups and downs. But this was the kind of setback that can derail a team, even one that claims to still have the confidence and belief that the best is yet to come.
Now for some specific observations:
— CB Ilyaas Motley deserves credit for how well he’s played in place of injured starting CB Jamal Hudson. He was the more effective of the starting tandem of corners against NIU, and picked off an interception. His decision to lateral the ball during the return however was one of those ‘oh no’ moments that should never be repeated.
— MLB Jared Dorsa was effective early, and even dynamic at times as he finished with 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a pass break up and a quarterback hurry. He was slowed by injury late in the game, however, which contributed to some of the defensive breakdowns.
— For a second straight week, CB Marlin Brooks went to make a play on the ball on a third-down slant route…and missed. He gave up a 34-yard touchdown at Buffalo, then saw NIU score on a 30-yard slant — on third-and-12. In both cases, if Brooks makes the tackle then the opponent would have been looking at fourth down. Instead, it was two scores.
— Ohio would be well served to find a way to find more players reps, in my opinion. Only 15 different players notched tackles during the game against NIU. The Bobcats have found ways to incorporate multiple waves on the defensive line and several cornerbacks this season, but rotating in different linebackers or safeties — even for a series or two in the second quarter — has been largely absent.
— S Javon hagan had eight tackles and a tackle for loss, but remains largely absent in making plays in the passing game. Part of the reason is he’s been used as the eight defender in the box in a lot of OU’s sets this season, and he’s been needed as Ohio’s issued defending the run have been well documented in this space.
Special Teams notes
It had to happen at some point, but Ohio finally had a punt blocked. It was the first block in seven years agains the Bobcats.
It was no fault of P Michael Farkas, who is regularly under 1.9 seconds in his release time. NIU used a block scheme similar to one Louisiana sprang on Ohio a few weeks ago. Then, OU fitted the blocking scheme properly and got the kick off. This time, there was a breakdown up front, and a runner came clear down the middle of the formation. It was a breakdown, and it’s believed not indicative of a flaw in Ohio’s latest punt formation or scheme.
Other than the block, there were few other big swing plays on special teams. Ohio had the better of the return yardage — NIU either took a touchback or fair caught every kickoff or punt — and the Bobcats’ edge in starting field position was due in part to those consistent few yard gains on every special teams exchange.
Ohio played without starting DT Cole Baker, and I thought it showed at times, especially in the second half when NIU’s ground game got on track.
Ohio was also without WRs Jerome Buckner and Tyler Tupa, starting CB Jamal Hudson and rotational DE Sam McKnight.
Kai Caesar and Marcus Coleman were the starting tandem at DT, with Brian Arp, Zach Burks and Kylan McCracken all working in. I even saw true freshman Jeremiah Burton in for at least one rep late in the game.
Motley filled in for Hudson at CB, and his twin brother Xavior, has also seen a dramatic increase in reps in recent weeks.
Ty Walton filled most of the reps at slot receiver in place of Buckner.
There were at least two notable in-game injuries. First, starting LG Brett Kitrell left the game in the 2Q and did not return with a lower leg injury. Kurt Danneker, his backup on the depth chart, filled in.
Second, MLB Jared Dorsa suffered a leg injury at some point in the second half and missed some time.
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 email@example.com.