Making an impact

Ohio redshirt freshman linebacker Keye Thompson (38) and LB Eric Popp converge on Kent State quarterback Dustin Crum during the Bobcats' 45-38 win on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 inside Peden Stadium.

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 (3-4, 2-1 MAC) held on in a shootout for a 45-38 win over Kent State (3-3, 2-1 MAC) on Saturday in Peden Stadium.

The Golden Flashes were hoping to break a five-game losing skid against the Bobcats, but instead a couple of usual suspects nudged Ohio to a win in a game they had to have.

OU’s sixth win in a row in the series came via big days from Ohio QB Nathan Rourke and a timely defensive play from fifth-year senior safety Javon Hagan. Both, as the Flashes are well aware, have been thorns in collective KSU side for years.

First, let’s look at Rourke. He’s 3-0 against KSU as an Ohio starter and piled up an impressive stat line. He was brilliant on Saturday with a career-high 342 yards, 79 yards rushing and four total touchdowns.

That the Canadian-born QB had success against KSU should be no surprise. In three career games against the Flashes Rourke has piled up one solid game after another on his way to three wins — 48-3 in 2017, 27-26 at Kent in 2018 and Saturday’s one-score victory.

Rourke’s totals in those three wins? 69.2 percent passing. 758 passing yards, with a whopping 11.7 per attempt. Five touchdown passes and one interception on 65 throws. On the ground, he’s totaled 187 yards in the three games, with 4.8 yards per carry and another four touchdowns. That’s more than 1,000 yards and nine TDs altogether.

Then there’s Hagan, who’s now 4-0 against Kent State. In four games against the Flashes, he’s compiled 22 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception. More than the numbers, however, he’s turned in two huge defensive plays to help Ohio win the last two close games against KSU.

In 2018, it was Hagan — playing as the single high safety — who tracked down a deep throw on the Flashes’ final possession for an interception that clinched a one-point win.

He nearly pulled off the same play on Saturday, but this time sold out with a full extension play to bat away a pass that — if it had gotten through — likely would’ve resulted in a game-tying, 75-yard touchdown.

Instead, OU forced a three-and-out and then made it 45-31 with under three minutes left with a TD on its next offensive possession.

For his part, Hagan wasn’t aware of the receiver alone behind him when he made the play. He was keying the quarterback, watched the ball, and then went after it.

“As soon as he let go of the ball, I kind of blacked out and made the play, because when you start thinking, that's where you start to trip up and make a mistake,” Hagan said. “It was one of the things where you're here for a reason, and that is to make the play, and that's what we preach all week. Make plays and stand out.”

KSU head coach Sean Lewis remembered Hagan from last year, and mentioned him earlier in the week. And then there he was again when Ohio needed it most.

“Hagan will probably be a first-team all-conference safety this year,” Lewis said. “Big-time players step up and make big-time plays.

“That’s what good players do. They show up and make plays.”

Some of Ohio’s best players made plays to win a game the team had to have.

But it was just one game. As Rourke knows all too well, there’s five more games left. And the Bobcats’ potential trip to Detroit gets a lot dicier if those plays aren’t made in the weeks to come.

“You don't go to Detroit and win it by just playing well in our last couple of games. We have to go out again and show it at Ball State and get things going and go one game at a time."

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. Kent State graded out:

Success Rate — Ohio 56.2 percent; Kent State 50.0 percent

Explosiveness — Ohio 14 chunk plays (18.9 percent); Kent State 14 (18.9)

Field Position — Ohio 35, Kent State 23

Finishing — Ohio 6 chances/31 points = 5.2 per trip; Kent State 7 chances/38 points = 5.4 per trip

Turnovers — Ohio 0, Kent State 1

The turnover numbers jump out again for several reasons. First, OU forced a turnover in a fourth straight game. Second, the Bobcats didn’t have a turnover in a second straight game. And third, incredibly, it was the first win this season for Ohio when it had same number, or fewer, turnovers than the opponent.

Ohio’s defense continues to struggle to find stops in vast swathes of games. KSU’s success rate was the highest of the season for an Ohio opponent. The Flashes’ 5.4 points per possession inside the OU 40 was the second-highest allowed this season. KSU’s chunk play rate — on 18.9 percent of offense snaps — was the third-highest allowed this season.

But the Bobcats got by with it’s best offensive showing of the season. Ohio landed big plays in the passing game, got consistent gains on the ground, and was able to dictate the terms to KSU.

Ohio’s 56.2 percent success rate was its highest of the season, bettering the 55.7 percent rate against Rhode Island in the opener, and OU’s 7.7 yards per play tied its high-water mark for the year (also did it against Marshall).

For the first time this year, I could envision the offense matching the highly-efficient, record-setting units of 2017 and ’18. It was a good follow up to last week’s offensive showing against NIU, and further proof the Bobcats are close to becoming the best offense in the MAC once again.

Offensive notes

Ohio took its deep shots early and often, then tried to squeeze the game out in the second half with the run game.

In either case, the Bobcats dominated on first down. OU was a bit heavy in the run tilt on first down (25 of 39 plays) but averaged 5.3 yards per carry on first down. Rourke 9 of 14 passes on first down for 190 yards. All told, Ohio gained 323 yards and had 8.3 yards per play on first down.

Needless to say, Ohio played ahead of the chains throughout. The Bobcats faced just 11 third downs during the course of the game, and had just three third-and-long situations — two of which it converted. Ohio’s 63.6 percent conversion percentage on third down was a season high, as was OU’s 4 of 6 conversions on third-and-medium — which had been a sticking point this season.

The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for getting hands on a speedy KSU front that gambled plenty and was always in motion. The Flashes had just 4.0 tackles for loss, and no sacks (after a review of the first-quarter take down on Rourke). When the offense is consistently successful (success rate), doesn’t have turnovers, and doesn’t have to deal with many negative plays, that’s a recipe for a big day.

The Bobcats were slightly run-heavy (61.6 percent), but it wasn’t atypical for a Solich team playing with a lead for most of the second half.

As for personnel, OU leaned more into the ’11’ group (1 TE, 1 RB) and used two tight ends just 22 percent of the time. But the Bobcats ran it well with 2 TEs on the field (57.1 percent success rate) and threw it exceptionally well (65.4 percent SR) with three wide outs lined up.

Now for some individual player thoughts:

— QB Nathan Rourke had his best game of the season, and probably one of the top 3-4 of his career. He broke 300 yards passing for the first time, threw for a high percentage (67.9) and got the ball down the field. Ohio’s 12.2 yards per passing attempt were a season high and the highest since Rourke averaged 15.8 in 2018 against BG. Add in decisive plays in the running game (5.6 average, 2 TDs, 2 chunk runs), and no turnovers, and it’s hard to find much fault in No. 12 for what he did on Saturday.

— RB De’Montre Tuggle was listed as the No. 3 RB, but has delivered nearly every time he’s been called on this season. He’s averaged 5.8 yards per touch this season (49 carries, 8 receptions) with 328 yards rushing and receiving. His six touchdowns are tied with Rourke for the team high. It’s not hard to see O’Shaan Allison and Tuggle being the 1-2 punch moving forward.

— WR Isiah Cox, a sophomore, had his first 100-yard game of the season and his most receiving yards since 2018 at NIU with four catches for 115 yards. Most often working out of the slot, or inside another flanker on the same side, Cox was a tough matchup all day for KSU’s LBs and safeties. Cox has been targeted a team-high 35 times this season and now has a team-high 19 receptions while averaging 16.6 yards per catch. There’s more youthful talent at OU than just Buckner and Hooks.

— Speaking of young WR talent, I’ve been waiting for redshirt freshman Ty Walton to have a breakthrough game and that came on Saturday. He had a career-high four catches for 59 yards, and he was targeted a team-high seven times. Buckner has earned the reputation as the next ‘Papi White’ on the current roster, but Walton isn’t far behind him.

— TE Ryan Luehrman had one of the biggest plays of the game when he converted a third-and-20 with a 24-yard reception down the seam. He’s clearly earned Rourke’s trust at this point. He finished with three catches for 42 yards, and two of the catches were for first downs.

— WR K.J. Minter deserves a special mention too. With so many wideouts battling through one injury or another, he was on the field early for a critical third down. Ohio trailed 14-10 at the time, and OU faced third-and-10. Minter reached up to make a nice grab on a deep out for 14 yards and keep the drive alive. On the next play, Rourke hit Buckner for a 51-yard touchdown. It was one of the five biggest plays of the day, and speaks to Minter’s ability to stay ready.

Defensive notes

In a macro-sense, this was another game for the Bobcats to wonder what the heck happened to the defense.

OU gave up 38 points defensively, didn’t force a turnover, and watched the Flashes convert 50 percent of their third-down tries while averaging 6.4 yards per play and 5.5 yards per carry.

How much of the Bobcats’ struggles defensively were tied to the KSU pace, and how much was the result of a new MLB and without a key DT, I can’t say.

There were penalties that hurt the cause as well, as CB Marlin Brooks was called for two pass interference calls and CB Ilyaas Motley was called for a hold and a third PI. The Bobcats were great in the red zone, didn’t take away the run game, and struggled to read KSU QB Dustin Crum on the assortment of read-option plays the Flashes used to great effect.

But, there were signs of encouragement as well.

Let’s start with the defense as a whole. Ohio managed just one ‘stop’ — a drive that ends in a punt, a turnover or a failed fourth down — in the first half. The Bobcats rebounded to get stops on three of five possessions (60 percent) in the second half.

A 60-percent stop rate isn’t exceptional, but it does clear Ohio’s season average by about 13 percent.

On a micro-level, OU finally had some defensive players make plays at key times.

A sack from Austin Conrad, and Will Evan’s 5-yard tackle for loss, combined to force a three-and-out to start the fourth quarter.

There was Hagan’s dramatic pass break up later in the quarter to force another 3-and-out with OU clinging to a seven-point lead.

In the first half, a trio of strong tackles on the outside forced a third-and-out despite the fact KSU completed three straight passes.

Ohio had 7.0 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. There were a couple pass breakups and a trio of quarterback hurries. For a second straight game, Ohio tallied 13 in the ‘havoc’ play category.

It does mark progress of a sort, even if the overall numbers from the game will leave most shaking their head.

Now for some specific observations:

— WLB Keye Thompson made his first career start and I thought showed well. He had a team-high 10 tackles, a hurry and 0.5 tackles for loss. He’s being called on to deliver with MLB Jared Dorsa out of the lineup, and he did it in his debut start.

— In the DE mix, Evans (four tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FF, 1 hurry) and Conrad (3 tackles, 1 sack, 2.0 TFL) continue to outpace the rest of the rotation and should continue to get as many reps as they can handle. Sam McKnight has missed several games, Amos Ogun-Semore has hit something of a sophomore slump, and Chukwdui Chukwu has been limited in passing situations. DE coach Pete Germano might have to start considering adding one of the young guys to the mix.

— Kai Caesar had a bounce-back game at DT (4 tackles, sack) after a blah performance against NIU. He had lots of company in the rotation against KSU as Brian Arp, Marcus Coleman, the injured Cole Baker, Zach Burks and redshirt freshman Kylen McCracken all got reps. Assistant Tremayne Scott was using nearly everyone at his disposal.

— Ohio wanted to use more of its depth, earlier, in the game this week and followed through. There has been robust rotation at DT and DE, and CB, all season. But against KSU, the Bobcats worked in Alvin Floyd and De’Vante Mitchell early at safety, and got reps for Bryce Houston, Jeremiah Wood and T.J. Robinson — two redshirt freshmen and a sophomore — in the LB group.

— Eric Popp started at MLB for the injured Dorsa and finished with just three tackles. He had the toughest adjustment to make with the shuffling that took place with the injury, learning new reads and set, while coordinating the defense.

— S Jarren Hampton (six tackles, 1 PBU) hasn’t been exceptional in coverage yet, but has been effective in his first season as a starter and a run-game enforcer.

— It’s been a tough month for CB Marlin Brooks who, despite Hudson out of the lineup, has been targeted more of late. For a third straight game, he gave up a big play touchdown when a WR caught a slant route in front of him, and he went for and failed to make the breakup.

Special Teams notes

Punter Michael Farkas got OU an extra possession before the half with his squib kick that clocked a KSU player in the helmet and resulted in a successful onside opportunity.

But it was a mixed bag for the Bobcats overall.

Farkas won the punting battle — he averaged 59.5 yards per punt and both of his punts were downed inside the 20. KSU averaged just 29.8 on four punts.

And Ohio did win the field position battle, so on the whole it was a decent day for all the special teams units.

But, PK Louie Zervos missed a 43-yard field goal in the first half when it appeared he simply miss-hit the ball.

And OU dodged two huge plays on special teams. Isiah Cox, returning a fourth-quarter punt, fumbled the ball at midfield on the return. A heads-up play by Xavior Motley — who grabbed the ball out of midair — save a potential momentum-turning turnover.

After Ohio scored to go up 48-31 with 2:49 left, the Flashes returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a would-be touchdown. The Bobcats were saved when a KSU player was called for a penalty on the return — for continuing to play after losing his helmet.

Taken as a group, it was a passing grade for the special teams units — which were graded as tops in the league by CFB guru Phil Steele before the season. But if either of those plays ended up the other way, it could’ve been a much different story.

Personnel/Injuries

The pregame scratch list was substantial, particularly for starters or rotational players for the Bobcats.

Defensively, MLB Jared Dorsa (starter), CBs Jamal Hudson (starter) and Tariq Drake, backup safety Michael Ballentine and DE Sam McKnight were all declared out before the game began. Hudson has yet to appear in a MAC game for Ohio, and McKnight has been out since game 4 as well. Dorsa was injured against NIU.

DT Cole Baker was available, and did play a handful of plays (no more than 12 or so) in the second half. I thought he made a difference but clearly is still working his way back.

Offensively, WR Tyler Tupa — a game 1 starter remember? — was out again and it appears he’s still a few weeks away from a possible return. Starting LG Brett Kitrell, injured vs. NIU, also missed.

In addition, WRs Jerome Buckner and Shane Hooks both played but both also saw much lower rep counts than usual. Buckner is just returning from a head injury suffered at Buffalo, and Hooks injured a leg in practice last week.

Ohio filled in the gaps admirably. Starting WLB Eric Popp slid over and started at MLB. Redshirt freshman Keye Thompson was the starter at WLB. Brian Arp and Kai Caesar were the starters at DT, with six players in total used there during the game.

Nick Sink continued to be the versatile fill in on the OL as he took the majority of reps for Kitrell at LG; Kurt Danneker saw time there as well.

The WR rotation leaned heavily on redshirt freshman Ty Walton for reps out of the slot, and Isiah Cox probably logged more reps than anyone in the group.

The noticeable in-game injures including both of Ohio’s top two RBs. Julian Ross left in the second quarter after appearing to aggravate his injured left shoulder (first suffered at Pitt). A few players later starter O’Shaan Allison left the game with a lower leg injury, and Solich said afterward that Allison was also dealing with facial swelling due to an allergic reaction to something during the week. RB De’Montre Tuggle took all the reps at RB in the second half.

DT Zach Burks left the game in the 2H with a lower leg injury.

Lastly, WR Cameron Odom has missed some practice time in recent weeks and clearly was at something less than 100 percent on Saturday. He took some reps, but clearly missed some of his turns in the rotation as well.

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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