Loading up for the Herd

Ohio offensive linemen Steve Hayes (left) and Brett Kitrell warm up prior to the Bobcats' 20-10 loss at Pitt on Sept. 7, 2019.

This was always a possibility. Now we get to see how the Bobcats deal with the reality.

Ohio (1-1) plays at Marshall (1-1) on Saturday night. It’s a classic ‘bounce-back’ opportunity for both teams, and the latest step in a challenging non-conference slate for both sides.

For the Bobcats, it’s also an opportunity. It’s a chance to show that last week’s loss at Pitt will be the exception, rather than the rule. It’s another chance to show that the youthful offense — really, OU will start three redshirt freshmen against the Herd — can be just as potent despite the occasional mistakes that cropped up at Heinz Field.

For two full seasons, Ohio has produced at an offensive level unseen before in the history of the program. One of the reasons why has been senior quarterback Nathan Rourke, the dual-threat signal-caller with the knack for getting out of trouble and making the most of a play even when things break down.

With Rourke back in the fold for 2019, the thought was Ohio would be able to still be an explosive offensive club even as redshirt freshmen and/or first-time starters dominated the lineup around him.

But the Pitt loss threw doubt on that theory a week ago.

OU’s plethora of young, talented-but-green receivers — Jerome Buckner, Tyler Walton and Shane Hooks — had issues separating from press coverage and finishing plays. In the backfield, redshirt freshman O’Shaan Allison and junior college transfer De’Montre Tuggle struggled in picking blitzes in pass protection.

In a winnable game, Ohio needed to make plays and on too many of them the Bobcats weren’t up to the task. That goes for the usually incomparable Rourke as well. He downplayed his illness as a reason, but he wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be either.

“All that goes for myself as well,” he said. “That was a game I’d like to have back. There’s a lot of mistakes that I made that if they go a different way then it’s a different game.

“WE have to be better.”

Ohio will have to be at its best to win in Huntington. The Herd win roughly 83 percent of their home games at Joan C. Edwards Stadium, and few teams in the country feed off the home crowd more than does Marshall.

With the late kickoff, 6:30 p.m., that crowd will be lathered up and ready to go. Add in the rivalry aspect — Marshall has played no other program more often than Ohio — and the Herd will be an especially tough out.

It will likely be the most difficult road atmosphere that Ohio has played in since 2017, when the Bobcats were ambushed in a night game at Purdue. It will be louder, hotter and more venomous than last week’s trip to Heinz Field.

Ohio is just 1-2 in Huntington under head coach Frank Solich, and that lone win came in 2012 when Tyler Tettleton — then at the height of his powers — led OU to a 27-24 win. It took everything the Bobcats had to pull out the road win.

That’s likely the best-case scenario for Ohio in this one.

Solich, for his part, is welcoming the challenge. He’s talked up the young talent in place on the Ohio roster. The Bobcats have been bloodied, now he’s eager to see how they respond.

“There’s a lot of teams that are going to have trouble against Pitt, in terms of their defense,” Solich said. “It’s all about believing in yourself and getting better each week.

“I’m anxious to see exactly what kind of strides we’ve made in the past week and this week.”

That goes double for Rourke. For the first time in his career he didn’t account for a single touchdown in a game that he finished. Rourke, still two from tying Tettleton in the Ohio record book for career touchdowns accounted for, has always backed a subpar game with a good one during his career.

In Huntington, Marshall head coach Doc Holliday likened Rourke to Tettleton, and it was a complement. Tettleton was 3-0 as a starter against the Herd. Rourke will be making his first start against Marshall.

“It’s going to show what this team is made of really, really quickly, which is a good thing,” Rourke said. “We’re going to learn a lot, or we’re going to be able to show what we’re about.”

Ohio (1-1) at Marshall (1-1)

The Battle for the Bell

Ohio Offense vs. Marshall Defense

Coming off the worst rushing day of his college career, Nathan Rourke wasn’t sweating it. He was handcuffed for negative-43 yards on nine rushing attempts — five true sacks plus a loss on a QB draw — at Pitt.

“What happened last year was I’d have a game where I’d run for a lot, then I’d have one where I wouldn’t,” Rourke said. “Northern Illinois, I didn’t run at all. It’s not my job to run the ball necessarily. Distribute it and get first downs.”

The Panthers made a concerted effort to take QBs runs off the table, and did with a combination of staying at home on the edge on run downs and then blitzing heavily in pass-heavy situations. It’s a formula OU is betting it will see again from an undersized, but speedy, Marshall front seven.

The Herd confounded Boise State last week with a swarming, movement-heavy front that prioritized attacking gaps as opposed to controlling them. Marshall isn’t plugging every gap, but attacking any perceived openings.

And the Herd has done it well. Marshall is allowing only 2.9 yards per carry and 15.5 points per game.

So how does Ohio attack it, while sharpening up against what they expect to be another blitz-heavy game plan?

Offensive coordinator Tim Albin said improvement needs to be made in the short passing game, and the running backs have to be better in pass protection. They can do the job, he believes, and they’ll get another chance to prove it.

“We had guys in position and we just got ran through,” Albin said. “My guys are strong enough. They’re 200-pound kids and can do it. They’ve made it a point this week to get locked in and we’re going to get challenged again. That’s on film. They’re going to come after us.”

Allison is expected to start again and has been effective. You can probably expect an uptick for Tuggle (12.1 average and 3 rushing touchdowns) as well if he can show he can reliably do the job on passing downs. Walk-on junior Ja’Vahri Portis will be the third back as sophomore Julian Ross (shoulder) has been ruled out.

Ohio’s strength — the power running game — will have to get vertical quickly agains the Marshall defense. The Herd excels at attacking the edges of blockers and mucking things up.

“They’re not as ‘hit you in the face and sit down’ like Pitt. They’re more of a ‘get on your edge and try to beat you with speed type defense,” said Ohio OT Austen Pleasants.

“If we do things right, that kind of plays into what we’re doing on offense. If we can stake things off and get vertical that’s going to be a big game for us.”

If the pass protection holds up, Rourke (63.3 percent passing, 365 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs) will have to work with a revamped receiver group. WR Tyler Tupa isn’t expected to be back just yet, and starting WR Cam Odom is questionable after an injury at Pitt. Ohio could start Buckner, Hooks and sophomore Isiah Cox.

“They do a good job disguising stuff for the quarterback. So Nate will have to be on point. It looks like two high (safeties), it’s not. Looks like one-high, and it’s not,” Albin said.

“We don’t have to try to win it on the first play. Get out there and do our thing for four quarters. Take care of the football, which we did at Pitt.”

Who to watch: For Ohio, focus will be on the backfield where Allison, Tuggle and Portis will take turns plunging into the Marshall defensive front…and staving off blitzing linebackers. If OU can get to third-and-medium, or short, then the blitz concerns will be minimized.

But Marshall has been stingy on the ground, then relies on man coverage and pressure on third down. But the Herd is allowing 44.1 percent conversions on third down (not great), and Ohio has been good so far on the money down (46.2 percent).

Safety Brandon Drayton (13 tackles, 1 TFL) will often be the eighth defender in the box and needs to be accounted for. Weakside linebacker Tavante Beckett (20 tackles) has been a revelation for the Herd in his first two starts. The havoc-causer in the middle is DT Channing Hames (6-5, 258), who might be salivating after watching OU give up three sacks to a DT last week at Pitt.

Marshall offense vs Ohio defense

The good news for OU is the defense looks like a vasty different unit from the one that started 2018.

The third-down percentage has been solid (32.1 percent) and the Bobcats have been great so far in the red zone by allowing just one touchdown on five red-zone trips.

The yards-per-play (6.2) and yards-per-carry (4.1) could be better, but in general Ohio has executed the plan of giving up few cheapies — with a couple of notable exceptions — and hunkering down well in big spots.

The one thing Ohio hasn’t done well in two weeks is create ‘havoc’ plays. These are sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles and generating turnovers. The Bobcats had 32 takeaways in 2018, but have just one in two games in 2019.

The Bobcats just missed a handful of such plays last week at Pitt. A missed sack in the end zone. A dropped interception in the red zone. A near strip-sack near midfield.

“We’re so close. We hit the quarterback so many times. How do we get there quicker? If we do that, we’ll be good,” said Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we get those plays,” he added. “You continue to keep working on it.”

Ohio has just three sacks, and 9.0 tackles for loss through two games. Improving those numbers against Marshall will be difficult giving the Herd’s penchant for quick hitters in the run game, and vertical shots down the field.

The offense is more complex than it was when the two teams last met, with Holliday continuing to add layers much in the same way Solich/Albin continue to fine tune what they do with the Bobcats.

“It has expanded a little bit. Before they were fairly simple and executed really well. Now they execute well, but the playbook has expanded,” Collins said.

The Herd, again much like Ohio, is looking for a bounce-back offensive game. Sophomore quarterback Isaiah Green (62.6 percent, 294 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs) was stymied last week at Boise State, but has the potential and athletic ability to be the next great quarterback in Marshall’s tradition at the position.

But the Herd will be a run-first outfit. Brenden Knox (114 yards, 5.7 average) has not yet had a single negative-yard play in two games, and Marshall picks up 5.6 yards per carry.

Down the field, big redshirt freshman WR Corey Gammage (6-4) is averaging 16.4 yards per carry and savvy senior slot receiver Artie Henry (17.2 yards per catch) is a big play waiting to happen.

Tight end/H-Back Xavier Gaines is the wild card, and gadget specialist. He’s got five catches, three rushes and a pass attempt in two games.

Marshall is running the ball roughly 57 percent of the time, and if the Herd can get Knox on track it could be a long night for the Ohio defense.

But the ‘Cats are due for some big plays, and would love to uncork a multiple-turnover performance for the first time this season. Collins admitted he contacted former friends and co-workers last week at Boise State.

It’s a big game for Ohio, and he’s using every resource available. But any hints or advice or theories pale in comparison to playing Marshall in Huntington.

“It’s a different story with Marshall being at home. They get a real lift there,” Collins said. “But yeah, we have some similarities with Boise State. Those are all my boys out there. We connected a little bit.”

Who to watch: Seeking more pressure, Ohio is hoping DEs Will Evans and Amos Ogun-Semore, among others, find more avenues to the quarterback. The duo has yet to notch a sack in 2019, but have combined for six quarterback hurries. It’s not a matter of if, but when, some of those forays start landing in time.

The Herd’s success will hinge on Knox. A big back (220 pounds) with a hard-charging running style, he’s best attacked before he gets rolling. He can wear down a defense, set up favorable deep shots for a still-learning Green in the passing game, and gives Marshall the stabilizing force it needs after an off-kilter performance at Boise State.

Extra points

— With his next win, Frank Solich will join Bill Hess (1958-1977) in second place on the Ohio career coaching wins list. Solich is three wins away from tying Herb Deromedi for the MAC record.

— Rourke remains at 80 career touchdowns accounted for. With two he’ll tie Tettleton’s record (82), and with three he’ll break it.

— Redshirt freshman Jerome Buckner leads Ohio with seven receptions for a team-high 108 receiving yards. He’s also tops on the roster with 12 targets in two games.

— Allison and Tuggle are tied for the team lead with 85 rushing yards apiece. Allison (4.2 average) has been effective in the passing game as well with four catches for 41 yards. Tuggle, with just seven carries, has three rushing touchdowns already and is due for more work.

— One sign Ohio’s defense has been playing to its strengths, or in system, so far is the tackle distribution. Ohio’s top five tacklers are the starting trio of linebackers and the starting duo at safety. Strong-side LB Dylan Conner has 17, weak side LB Eric Popp is at 16, safety Javon Hagan is at 15, fellow safety Jarren Hampton is at 14, and middle LB Jared Dorsa is also at 14.

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

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