Finishing on a high note

Ohio running back Julian Ross (left) celebrates a second-quarter touchdown with quarterback Nathan Rourke during the Bobcats' win the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. 

BOISE, Idaho — Ohio’s aggravating, near-miss season ended on a positive note.

The Bobcats whipped Nevada, 30-21, in the 23rd annual Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Friday inside Albertsons Stadium. Ohio (7-6) avoided its first losing season since 2008 with the victory, and delivered a strong end to the 2019 season.

The Bobcats finished the year with three straight wins after sitting at 4-6 through 10 games. It’s the first time all season that Ohio finished a game with a winning record.

OU was predicted to win the Mid-American Conference this fall, but had to settle for a third-straight bowl win instead.

“This team has a special place in my heart,” said Ohio head coach Frank Solich, who saw his team lose four games during the regular season by a combined 11 points.

The three straight bowl victories are a program first for Ohio, and the first for the MAC since Toledo and then Miami pulled off the feat in the early 1970s. Three straight bowl wins tied the MAC’s longest consecutive run of postseason success.

“I’m proud to be a part of this season,” said senior quarterback Nathan Rourke. “I’m proud to be a part of that.

Rourke threw for 144 yards, and rushed for 87 yards and a touchdown. He was guilty of two fumbles, but still took home game MVP honors afterward.

“This game took both sides of the ball to win,” Rourke said.

Ohio rushed for 285 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per carry against Nevada (7-6). The Wolf Pack countered with 401 passing yards, and freshman quarterback Carson Strong completed 31 of 49 passes for 402 yards and a touchdown.

Running backs De’Montre Tuggle (99 yards), Julian Ross (57) and O’Shaan Allison (46) complemented Rourke in the running game, and the Bobcats used it to pound out a 30-9 lead late in the third quarter after Tuggle’s two-yard run.

But Rourke lost the ball on a bad option pitch early in the fourth and Nevada scored two touchdowns over a span of 126 seconds to threaten late. Strong found Elijah Cooks for an 8-yard touchdown and Devonte Lee’s one-yard touchdown plunge pulled the Wolf Pack to within 30-21 with 8:42 left.

But Ohio’s defense held strong. Defensive end Austin Conrad forced a fumble on a reverse play inside the OU 20 yard line with 3:12 remaining, and DT Marcus Coleman jumped on it for a turnover.

With just under two minutes to go, Nevada was driving again, but turned the ball over on downs on four straight incompletions from the OU 9-yard line.

“We have fighters on our team,” Ohio junior safety Jarren Hampton said. “We’re not going to lay down for anybody.”

Crooks was terrific for Nevada, which entered the game with a makeshift defensive coaching staff and had three defensive starters sitting out because of suspension. But Strong and Crooks — who finished with 14 catches for 197 yards and one touchdown — gave the Wolf Pack a chance in the second half.

Ohio leaned on the ground game, and timely defense, to craft a 20-9 lead by halftime.

The teams traded field goals on their first possessions, and it was knotted 3-3 after the first quarter.

Both teams picked up steam in the second. The Bobcats used a 15-play drive, taking off more than seven minutes of the game clock, to stake a 10-3 lead early in the second after Julian Ross’ 12-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one.

Nevada answered with another field goal, and Ohio extended the lead just three plays later. Rourke sauntered through the right side for a 35-yard touchdown run and a 17-6 lead with 6:21 left in the half.

OU made it 20-6 on its next drive with Louie Zervos’ 33-yard field goal. Brandon Talton countered for Nevada, with a 33-yard field goal, on the last play of the half to make it 20-9 at the break.

Ohio racked up 175 rushing yards in the first half alone and attempted just six throws. Nevada took the opposite track, with minus-1 yard rushing in the half, but 183 through the air.

Ohio kept plugging away despite Allison, the starter, leaving the game after the second series with injury.

And the Bobcats were able to send off Rourke as a winner. He finished with 49 career rushing touchdowns, tied for the program record, and he ended his career with more yards of total offense than any other quarterback in Ohio history.

“It was awesome to be able to go out in that way,” Rourke said. “It’s been a good ride.”

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

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