Final Saturday in Athens

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke (12) celebrates with teammates Hagen Meservy (76), Marques Grimes, Steven Hayes (73) and Cameron Odom (3) after a touchdown against Northern Illinois on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. The Bobcats (2-4) wrap up the Saturdays portion of their home schedule on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019 against Kent State starting at 12 p.m.

ATHENS, Ohio — It always comes suddenly, and way too early.

No, I’m not referring to the onset of the realization that there is one — just one!! — football Saturday left in 2019 on the Ohio University campus. And that takes place this weekend when Ohio (2-4, 1-1 MAC) faces Kent State (3-3, 2-0 MAC) at noon inside Peden Stadium.

What I'm referring to is the must-win nature of the season facing the Bobcats at the halfway point. Ohio, with just four 2-0 conference starts in MAC play under 15-year head coach Frank Solich, has been thrust into this scenario more often than not over the last two decades.

Ohio has often been in contention for the MAC East title, say in 13 of the last 15 years. Sometimes it’s as a favorite — like this season — sometimes it’s as an overachiever. But in nearly every title chase, OU has had an early stumble which has led to a frantic need to avoid any letdowns during the middle portion of the season.

And that’s squarely where Ohio resides at the moment. The Bobcats know they blew a great chance to keep some wiggle room available when it couldn’t close out NIU in a 39-36 home loss last weekend.

Forget wiggles, now it’s time for the the Bobcats to squirm. The margin for error is gone. The results haven’t matched expectations. And OU now faces the MAC East leader with the knowledge that a loss likely puts those title hopes on life support.

The consolation, the solace, in the Bobcats’ current plight is two-fold. First, OU has been here before and often — see the last two seasons — and responded with a multi-game winning streaks that firmly thrusts the Bobcats into contention heading into November.

And second, there’s been no wavering on the belief front at Peden Stadium or in Walter Fieldhouse. Ohio swears it’s not buckling to the pressure, it’s embracing it.

“There’s a lot of life lessons learned in football,” Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “When you get knocked down, you got to figure out a way to keep getting back up and getting back in the ring and swinging away.”

That’s precisely what Collins’ unit will be trying to do against Kent State. Ohio’s two-quarter defensive implosion — in the second half — against NIU, led to a week of examination, questions, and proposed solutions, but little doubt.

For all the talk about being on the same page, it can be hard to figure out what the Bobcats are meaning. Ohio is pulling in the same direction, conscious of the plan and what needs to be done.

But getting all 11 players to do it, together, on a consistent basis, in the second half has been the issue. Until NIU scored on five straight possessions last week, Ohio thought the unit was coming around. OU had allowed just 17 offensive points in the six previous quarters.

There have been similar issues offensively, but far fewer and often glossed over by the singular talents of QB Nathan Rourke. But the defense has been the focal point over the last week.

Time is running out for the pieces to fall into place on that side.

“I like what we’ve done in six out of the last eight quarters,” Solich said Thursday.

“There’s not a lot of adjustments we want to make,” he continued. “We’ve looked at what we can do a little bit better. In terms of the coaching end of it, from Xs and Os to play calling to substituting to those kind of things. We’re hoping it plays out well.”

Ohio has been in dozens of these kinds of games, and that’s just in the last handful of years. Kent State, meanwhile, is treading on new ground. The Flashes have just one winning season in the last 19 years and no one connected with the current roster was part of the last season (2012) when KSU was playing meaningful conference games in mid to late October.

The Flashes’ schedule — blowout wins against Bowling Green and Akron, and blow out losses at Top 25 foes in Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin — leaves KSU something of a mystery. How good are they, really?

So the two teams meet on Saturday. The preseason favorite trying to rally together and get on track. The upstart looking to make a statement that it’s for real.

A win keeps the Bobcats alive in the MAC East race. A loss? OU isn’t considering that possibility yet.

“Guys are still positive,” said junior defensive end Will Evans. “We’re still together as a team. We’re looking to get to the next game and work it out.

“We still have that belief in each other.”

Ohio (2-4, 1-1) vs. Kent State (3-3, 2-0 MAC)

Ohio Offense vs. Kent State Defense

The Flashes aren’t big, or burly, but are they actually as ineffective against the run as the season-long numbers suggest? Probably not.

The stat sheet says KSU is giving up 247.8 rushing yards per game (11th in the MAC) and 4.9 yards per carry (tied for ninth). But take out bruising trips to Auburn (467 rushing yards allowed) and Wisconsin (348) and the numbers are pretty respectable.

In two MAC games, KSU has allowed a combined 249 rushing yards and just 3.4 yards per carry. It’s a testament to the Flashes’ approach, which places value on speed and maneuverability over bulk to hold up at the point of attack. The Flashes average just 235 pounds per player in the front seven, and have just two regulars who weigh more than 250 pounds.

“They cause problems with their quickness,” Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin said.

“I’m nervous about staying on blocks. They get off blocks and they run to the football better than anybody we’ve seen.”

How does that show up in games? Holes tend to close quickly. Option plays, or counters, are sometimes scuttled when pursuit arrives inside out. And while the Flashes aren’t getting a lot of interceptions, they are notching sacks (16, fourth in MAC) and can cause fumbles when that pursuit arrives at a ball-carrier from an odd angle.

All of those showed up in Ohio’s one-point win at Kent State last season in Sean Lewis’ first foray against Solich and company. The Bobcats were absurdly efficient — no 3-and-outs, 57.9 percent efficiency rate — but three lost fumbles kept OU off-balance, and behind on the scoreboard, most of the game.

KSU’s 3-4 front is designed to bring a myriad of pressures from different angles and directions. It will challenge the Ohio OL and Rourke — who often calls out the protection — to be sharp mentally. Outside linebacker Kesean Gamble (6-1, 252) has been good on the edge, and was a player OU recruited heavily. DE Theo Majette (5-11, 238) is one of those undersized MAC ends who is difficult to get hands on and has the speed to run down plays (5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks).

With Rourke being the Bobcats’ best outside runner, and RB O’Shaan Allison (320 yards, 4.6 per carry) a suitable cinder block between the tackles, Ohio should be able to find some success on the ground.

And if the box gets crowded, OU has developed a couple vertical threats — WR Shane Hooks (21.5 per catch, 322 yards) and TE Ryan Luehrman (216 yards, 14.4 per catch) — that could capitalize.

Ohio had its best offensive day this season against an FBS opponent a week ago vs. NIU, but can it stay on track with some potential injury issues?

Center Steven Hayes in back in the lineup, but starting LG Brett Kitrell is questionable following an injury last week. WR Tyler Tupa remains out for the foreseeable future, and slot WR Jerome Buckner is questionable after an injury two weeks ago against Buffalo.

Given the stress Ohio is facing with the defense — just a 50 percent stop rate this season — any missteps offensively loom larger. And with KSU’s approach offensively — go, go, go — I wouldn’t be surprised to see OU try to milk the clock and control the game flow more than usual.

And Ohio, barring turnovers, should have an opportunity to do that. The Bobcats lead the MAC and rank 18th nationally with a 47.4 percent conversion rate on third downs. KSU is 11th in the MAC by allowing 47.8 percent conversions on third down.

The Bobcats don’t have to be Auburn or Wisconsin to find success against KSU, but can’t win if they play like BG or Akron offensively.

Who to watch: When you’re really up against it, you turn to your best players and put your trust in them. It makes sense Ohio gives even more to QB Nathan Rourke this week. He was brilliant last year against KSU (18 of 20, 284 yards, 2 total TDs) and instrumental in bringing the Bobcats back on the road.

Rourke is Ohio’s leading rusher (330 yards, 5.1 average) is completing 58.6 percent of his throws for 1,270 yards and eight touchdowns to four interceptions. When the offense has been locked in, he’s been at the center of it. To paraphrase NIU coach Thomas Hammock, the dude can make plays.

The Flashes have one of the better in-the-box safeties in the league in junior Qwuantrezz Knight, a transfer from Maryland. He typifies Kent State’s fast-not-big approach on defense.

He leads KSU with 40 tackles, and ranks high on the team with 4.0 tackles for loss. He’ll run down plays, be a constant near the line of scrimmage, and is capable of being a major thorn in Ohio’s option plans on the edges.

Kent State offense vs Ohio defense

This matchup will be all about pace. The Flashes, with Sean Lewis, will try to employ more tempo than any team on the Bobcats’ schedule. It’s something Solich, and Collins, have become used to.

Since Ohio first ran into the approach, way back in 2009, they’ve developed certain protocols for dealing with teams that try to beat you with pace.

First, in practice you’ll see Ohio try to prep the defense with two scout team units working back-to-back to simulate the quick-fire snaps.

Second, Ohio knows that substituting will be hard. It’ll keep an eye on when KSU subs, and trying to use those gaps to make their own substitutions.

And third, the initial third down in an offensive series for the opponent is critical. Often — best exemplified by OU’s clashes with Dino Baber’s BG teams a few years ago — if a tempo team can convert an initial third down, the momentum builds and grows and the resulting drive becomes a bear to manage.

But Ohio has defensive issues that have nothing to do with pace. How can the Bobcats correct some of that, while managing to be prepared for tempo?

Simplify, be deeper, and attack, said Collins.

“It’s tough for the players because things start to get foggy, right?” Collins said, referring to the challenges of facing tempo. “You start to get tired and just trying to find where they’re supposed to line up and that kind of thing.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to try to alleviate. Make the picture clear for our players and not have them not lined up and hesitating on the field.”

And don’t be fooled by KSU’s pace. This isn’t a chuck-the-ball-around offense. With new starting QB Dustin Crum, the Flashes want balance, smart throws and ball control. KSU has had called runs 53.7 percent of the time.

“At the heart of it, I want to run the football,” Lewis said this week.

And he’ll want to run it at Ohio, which is giving up a MAC-worst 5.2 yards per carry and 6.4 yards per play (11th in MAC).

Crum, besides being smart with the football, is a capable of runner. Senior RB Jo-El Shaw (6-1, 230, 298 yards, 5.0 yards per carry)) is the type of big back OU has had trouble with this season but missed last week’s game at Akron. Fifth-year senior Will Matthews (5-7, 201) stepped in for 126 yards (5.0 average).

And if Ohio can manage the tempo, and find a way to improve in the box against the run, then the Flashes can try to get vertical with sophomore WR Isaiah McKoy. He burned OU with a long touchdown over the top on the first play from scrimmage in last year’s game, and leads KSU this season with 28 catches for 381 yards and four touchdowns.

With the season on the proverbial edge, Ohio’s defense knows it simply has to find a way at this point. But that could be complicated by injury issues with three starters potentially out of the lineup.

DT Cole Baker, Ohio’s best interior defender, missed last week’s game with NIU. CB Jamal Hudson has missed two straight games. Starting MLB Jared Dorsa was injured during the NIU game. Backup DE Sam McKnight has been out three weeks.

There have been no official injury updates this season from Ohio, adhering to a consistent new policy.

Ohio has forced just four turnovers this season, and has just seven sacks. Seeing those numbers balloon against KSU doesn’t seem likely.

Yes, the Flashes have given up 23 sacks on the season, but 17 came in those three road games at ASU, UW and Auburn. And KSU ranks third in the MAC in turnover ratio (+3) thanks to just five offensive turnovers — and not a single interception — this season.

If the Bobcats want to get stops on Saturday, they’ll have to do it on third down. KSU converts 41.3 percent (third in MAC), and Ohio ranks seventh in opponent third down percentage (41.0).

Who to watch: KSU turned to junior QB Dustin Crum early this season after some inconsistency from returning starter Woody Barrett, and he’s delivered the no-mistake, take-what’s-there approach that Lewis was searching for.

Crum is an active runner (second on the team with 214 rushing yards), and while he hasn’t aired it out he is making the safe, smart throw on a regular basis. He’s yet to have an interception this season and his 72.2 percent completion percentage is the best among all MAC starters. Call him a system QB if you want, but he’s got KSU on schedule.

Ohio S Javon Hagan (team high 54 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, 3 pass breakups) has been instrumental in the Bobcats’ run defense plans all season. With the Flashes expected to go quickly, and often, with its own read option game, Hagan will often be the man in the crosshairs. If he’s able to scrape and contest the QB keeper, it’s great sign OU’s defense is on track.

Around the MAC

For the first time this season, the entire conference will be in action and playing MAC games on Saturday. Enjoy it. It’s the first Saturday of the season where this has happened…and the last one will be next week.

There’s a price to be paid for mid-week games after all.

The preseason favorites are in focus this week. Ohio takes on Kent State in one matchup where the favorite faces the current first-place team with the knowledge that another league loss would be especially damning.

The other is in Muncie where Ball State (3-3, 2-0 MAC) — the current West leader — hosts preseason favorite Toledo (4-2, 1-1 MAC). Like the Bobcats, if the Rockets lose this one it becomes difficult to figure out an easy-to-plot scenario for them to win their division.

Ohio is a 7.5 favorite at home, but the Rockets are a 2.5-point road underdog.

In the other four games, the road team is favored. NIU (2-4, 1-1 MAC) is a 2.5-point favorite at Miami (2-4, 1-1 MAC).

And the other three games? Big road favorites are expected to roll in all three. Surprising CMU (4-3, 2-1 MAC) will try to do what Toledo couldn’t, and win at Bowling Green (2-4, 1-1 MAC). The Falcons are getting 11 points.

Western Michigan (4-3, 2-1 MAC), a nine-point favorite, will try to finish off EMU’s fleeting divisional hopes. The Eagles (3-3, 0-2 MAC) have went from MAC darlings to an afterthought in quick order.

And at Infocision Stadium, the Zips (0-6, 0-2 MAC) will take another step closer to an 0-12 mark that seems inevitable. Buffalo (2-4, 0-2 MAC) comes to town off a bye and is favored by 17.5 points.

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

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