ATHENS, Ohio — And during the seventh game of the season, the Bobcats finally exhaled.
Ohio (4-3, 2-1 MAC) had been waiting for a game like this all year. The Bobcats clicked in every facet, and blew out an overmatched opponent, for a 49-14 win over Bowling Green on Homecoming.
First, it was a game Ohio had to have. Second, it was an opponent the Bobcats had to handle easily. The ‘Cats checked off both boxes.
Bowling Green (1-6, 0-4 MAC) is a bit of a mess, with a mid-season coaching change and a defense ill-equipped to stop anything at the moment.
But Ohio has faced similar squads already this season, and left those games feeling unfulfilled. Ohio didn’t take care of business against Howard, let UMass hang around and then needed an escape at Kent State.
That wasn’t the case against BG. It was the kind of clear, no-doubt, no-worries showing Ohio has been searching for.
The Bobcats were able to play the entire bench, keep things basic and coast during the first game of a three-in-13-days stretch that will define whether Ohio remains a MAC East contender in November.
Head coach Frank Solich has been waiting for THIS Ohio team to show up for the last two months. It finally did.
“I think, obviously, as coaches, this is the team that we wanted to have on the field,” Solich said afterward. “They’ve kept a great attitude, there has been great leadership on this football team and, despite the few tough moments we've been through, they marched on. That's the sign of a really good football team.”
I worked these into the blog recaps last season, and they make a return here again in 2018. There are five factors that determine the outcome of most college football games — efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers. 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 Northern Illinois graded out:
Success Rate — Ohio 72.1 percent; Bowling Green 41.2
Explosiveness — Ohio 24 (1/2.6 plays); Bowling Green 8 (1/6.3)
Field Position — Ohio 28, Bowling Green 24
Finishing — Ohio 6 chances/42 points = 7.0 per trip; Bowling Green 3 chances/7 points = 2.3 per trip
Turnovers — Ohio 1, Bowling Green 2
Ohio may have only scored 49 points, but don’t be fooled. This was the Bobcats’ best offensive day of the season.
I thought Solich clearly called off the dogs on BG, perhaps because of his relationship with interim head coach Carl Pelini, late in the first half. Ohio had a chance there to get another possession, and let the clock run out instead. Solich also had Ohio kneel twice inside the five at the end of the game.
But with that in mind, Ohio blistered the efficiency stats. The Bobcats’ 72.1 percent success rate was the highest of the season. Ohio averaged 7.8 yards per rush, 9.5 yards per play and 22.8 yards per completion. Ohio had 32 first downs and scored seven touchdowns on just 63 total plays.
And the yards came in a steady stream of chunks. Ohio had a season-high 24 ‘chunk’ plays, including a whopping 18 (of a called 49) runs of 10 or more yards. The ‘Cats notched a chunk play on 38.1 percent of all their plays, the highest rate I’ve charted in the last three years. Solich said the 18 ‘chunk’ runs represented the highest total in his 14 years at Ohio.
Defensively, Ohio was good in terms of efficiency (41.2) but really made strides in limiting chunk plays (season-low 8 allowed) and came up with two turnovers. And the Bobcats had their best day of the season in terms of limiting BG to just three scoring opportunities (inside the 40) and then holding the Falcons to just one touchdown when they got there.
After a sub-standard showing against a good defense at NIU, the offensive line dominated a bad BG front. Space was created, blocks were held and lanes opened.
QB Nathan Rourke had six ‘chunk’ runs on his 10 carries. He was aggressive in looking to keep the ball on the read-zone series, and punished BG whenever it got too focused on the inside run game.
Not that it matters. RB Maleek Irons had his second 100-yard game of the season and five of his 12 carries covered at least 14 yards apiece. RB A.J. Ouellette had three chunk runs on his 14 carries.
Ohio stayed away from four WR looks (just three plays) and instead opted for a bare-bones, straight forward approach. The Bobcats ran 22 plays out of a two TE look — its highest total since Week 3 at UC — and ran everything else from basic formations with the ’11’ personnel on the field.
Ohio made no attempts to be balanced. It was a run-heavy approach (49 called runs, 14 called throws) and had just six called throws on first down. The Bobcats felt they could push BG around and just hammered away.
And Rourke took, and hit, on nearly every big throw when the Bobcats tried to go vertical. He missed his first three throws — all open targets — but hit on 8 of his last 10. His QBR number — an ESPN created metric — was 98.5 for the day. A perfect score is 100, and his QBR against BG was the highest for a MAC QB in any game this season.
WR Papi White had just three touches on offense, and all went for scores. He was targeted just three times on throws.
WR Andrew Meyer had a game-high five targets, and finished with three catches for 52 yards and a TD. Odom was targeted twice, and had a 15-yard TD catch in the third quarter.
WR Isiah Cox had a big catch again, for 22 yards on a third-and-6, and TE Connor Brown now has catches in four straight games.
In the record book, Ouellette is now at 613 career carries (6th all time) for 2,926 career yards (6th all time) and 25 rushing TDs (tied for 5th all time). Beau Blankenship (2011-13) is next up on the career rushing yards list with 2,976.
Rourke, with a rushing score, joins Ouellette with 25 career rushing TDs. Rourke’s TD passes give him 30 for his career; he passed Bobcat legend Cleve Bryant (29) for third place in program history on Saturday. Next up in that list is Boo Jackson with 38.
Chad Brinker (1999-2002) is fourth in Ohio history with 27 career rushing touchdowns.
Yes, Ohio gave up a long early touchdown. But if you take out that one play — where BG’s Scott Miller beat Javon Hagan for a long TD catch down the seam — this was a terrific day (in any year) for the Ohio defense.
The Bobcats gave up a season-low 14 points, a season-low 314 total yards, and limited a pretty good BG passing game to 214 yards passing.
Ohio minimized big plays, after the early 57-yarder, took away the run game (3.8 average) and did enough on third downs to keep the Falcons neutralized. BG needed, on average, 10.5 yards on third down, and was just 4 of 11 (36.4 percent) on the day. That, too, was a season-best number for the Ohio defense.
Highlighting the third-down improvement was the fact Ohio forced BG into five third-and-long situations, and didn’t allow a conversion on any of them.
For three straight weeks, all in MAC play, Ohio has looked like a competent defense. There have been lapses, of course, but it’s been a dramatic shift in the ratio of ‘good’ play to ‘bad’ play in the last three weeks.
What’s led to the improvement? Two things, in my opinion. First, a lot of the youth on defense — the first time starters that populate much of the two-deep — is settling in. There are fewer and fewer outright gaffes on assignment and alignment. Players are more confident in what they’re doing.
And second, Ohio is doing a better job of diversifying their approach. You’re seeing some of the old ‘Tampa 2’ that DC Jimmy Burrow leaned on heavily when he first started at Ohio. The Cover 4 base is still there, but now you seeing some zone and the Cover 1 (one free high safety) mixed in. There have been more stunts up front, less straight blitzing.
I think it’s becoming harder to peg what the Bobcats are going to do in specific situations.
Add it all together and it’s led to some steady improvement.
Now this isn’t to say there won’t be issues down the road. Ohio hasn’t yet faced one of the best offenses in the MAC. With all the man coverage used, the Bobcats will occasionally give up big plays.
But there’s little doubt in my mind the Bobcats are in a better place defensively right now than a month ago.
Individually, LB Tyler Gullett — making his second start in 2018 — was terrific in place of Dylan Conner. He was effective on the run (9 tackles) and created some pressure on called blitzes (sack, 1.5 TFL). It was his best game as a ‘traditional’ linebacker at Ohio.
Jamal Hudson and Marlin Brooks are still ‘young’ corners, and there will be mistakes. But I love the way they play. Aggressive, physical, both are assets against the short/screen game where those attributes really show.
Redshirt freshman DE Amos Ogun-Semore had a sack and it was a needed one for a first-year player who at times has floated in and out in terms of effectiveness.
LB Evan Croutch had just five tackles, but he was my defensive MVP. He got his second interception of the season, and had a chance for two more. He’s come a long way in his pass defense responsibilities this season.
Quiet days for Hagan (four tackles), DE Will Evans (1 tackle, 1 fumble recovery) and MLB Jared Dorsa (4 tackles). Part of that is due to the fact their reps were limited — didn’t play much in the fourth quarter — and BG ran only 50 offensive snaps.
Special Teams notes
Ohio still hasn’t logged many big, or game-changing, plays on special teams but the Bobcats continue to grade well on all special teams units.
For instance, against BG, the ‘Cats finished +6.4 yards in net punting and +5.1 yards in net kickoffs. It seems like a small numbers, but it did offer Ohio a tangible benefit in drive starts and field position.
Punter Michael Farkas deserves credit in both aspects — he also handles kickoffs — and his lone punt against BG was a high 47-yarder that was downed inside the 20-yard line.
Ohio didn’t allow much on kick-off returns, just 15.3 per return, and BG started outside the 25 just once after 10 Ohio kickoffs.
Kylan Nelson was okay on kick returns (22.5 average) and Papi White lost yards on two punt returns. Ohio can get more in those two areas, but neither has been a factor outside of D.L. Knocks TD return in the season opener.
If there is a concern, it’s with PK Louie Zervos. No, he’s fine and all that. It’s just that Zervos hasn’t attempted a field goal in the last three games.
“I feel for Louie a little bit — but only a little bit,” Solich said Monday. “You want to score touchdowns; you do not want to score field goals. We know Louie is there; he’s a proven kicker.”
With the games stacking up, the number of Bobcats continuing to play while a little banged up continues to rise.
For BG, that included offerings from RB A.J. Ouellette (hit hard at NIU), WR Cameron Odom (shoulder at NIU), RG Joe Anderson (hand/thumb/wrist at NIU) and LB Dylan Conner (forearm/wrist at NIU). All played against Bowling Green.
Conner didn’t start for the first time this season however, and saw his reps limited. Odom, too, had fewer reps than in earlier weeks as WR Isiah Cox saw an uptick in his play time.
During the game, there was one obvious injury. Starting C Brett Kitrell left the game in the fourth quarter after suffering some sort of lower leg/ankle injury. He was able to limp off the field.
CB Jalen Fox, meanwhile, missed his third straight game. He’s played in four games this year, and hasn’t participated in a MAC game this season. CBs Jamal Hudson and Marlin Brooks started as a tandem for the third game in a row.
Two rotation players who should’ve played, but didn’t were DE Chukwudi Chukwu and OG Nick Sink.
In terms of true freshmen, neither WR Shane Hooks nor WR Jerome Buckner played. It’s a sure sign that Ohio may be trying to limit the games for both to keep them at four or under for the season.
One true freshman did play however, as OG Kurt Danneker got reps (in place of Sink) in the fourth quarter on the OL. It was his first game of the season.
With Solich deciding to cut off injury updates moving forward, it’s going to be impossible to offer up specific updates regarding some players. But the coach did confirm afterward that RB Julian Ross had his scheduled shoulder surgery and will miss the rest of 2018. Ross played in just four games and will be eligible to use 2018 as a redshirt season.
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.