Working out the kinks

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke (12) throws behind the offensive line during the Bobcats’ 45-25 loss to Louisiana on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.

With the Bobcats in the midst of a full bye week, this seems like a good time to take stock of what Ohio has done — and what needs work — with two-thirds of the season remaining.

And the Bobcats have plenty of work left to do. Ohio (1-3) stumbled through the end of the non-conference portion of the schedule and hit the bye riding a three-game losing skid.

The Bobcats failed to beat a FBS opponent in the non-conference portion of the schedule for the first time since 2008. That year, OU finished 4-8 after the rugged start and that season is the last time the Bobcats have failed to notch a winning season under current 15-year head coach Frank Solich.

The non-conference slate, after an FCS opener with Rhode Island, was pretty good. Pitt (2-2) nearly knocked off Penn State, then did beat nationally ranked UCF, and should be a contender in its division of the ACC. Marshall (2-1) lost a one-possession game at Boise State — regarded as the best team from the Group of Five — and is the preseason favorite to win its half of Conference USA. And Louisiana (3-1) was in the game in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State in its opener before falling 38-28. The Cajuns, however, have won three in a row and is a preseason favorite in its half of the Sun Belt.

With all that said, Ohio had chances to be more competitive at Pitt, and to win at Marshall. In addition, OU trailed just 31-25 against Louisiana before a slew of late turnovers led to the three-touchdown loss.

So Ohio hasn’t been awful after four games. There have been glimpses and flashes of what kind of team the Bobcats can — and what they feel they should — be in 2019.

But the issues that have plagued Ohio early this season won’t just disappear. They’ll have to be addressed, and corrected, if the ‘Cats want to rebound and win the MAC East Division this season.

So here’s what’s went wrong so far in 2019, and with some additional thoughts about why there’s reason to believe it can change.

Turnovers

After four games, Ohio is negative-6 in turnover ratio. That ranks last in the MAC and, as evidenced against Louisiana, is a huge hurdle for any team to overcome.

Offensively, OU has been good about taking care of the ball. Before ULL, the first team offense had not had a single turnover this season. In desperation mode against the Cajuns, that changed.

Senior QB Nathan Rourke (57.1 percent completions, 857 passing yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs) isn’t a turnover machine. Head coach Frank Solich views his last outing as an aberration, not a sign of things to come.

“He’s been excellent at not giving away the ball throughout his time here,” Solich said. “Unfortunately, this just wasn’t him today, there were a lot of things that broke down today that caused what happened.”

Three of Ohio’s eight turnovers this season have come on the punt return unit. That can, and should be, addressed during the bye week. Redshirt freshman Jerome Buckner has lots of promise (7.3 punt return average) but his last two fumbles on punt returns have been huge momentum swings.

Still, the bigger issue is creating turnovers. Ohio swiped a staggering 32 takeaways in 2018, but has just two after four games in 2019. That projects out to just six for the entire season. It’s a trend that can’t continue.

And there’s reason to believe it won’t. Since Solich came to Athens in 2005, Ohio has never had a season with fewer than 17 takeaways, and in 11 of his 14 previous seasons Solich has seen the OU defense generate 22 or more turnovers.

The Bobcats are due.

Run defense

The other alarming defensive statistics for Ohio lies with the defense against the run. Ohio is allowing 5.5 yards per carry so far in 2019; It’s the highest in the Solich era at OU. Only once before — 2015 — has a Solich-era defense even allowed 5.0 yards per carry.

Ohio’s current 29.5 points allowed per game is also the third-highest number of the last 15 years. That, of course, goes hand-in-hand with the run game issues.

Ohio’s strength and depth at defensive tackle was a question mark at the beginning of the season and remains unsolved. Senior Cole Baker (14 tackles, 2.5 sacks) had been a standout, but too many times the middle hasn’t held up.

Only one time in 2017, and once in 2018, did Ohio allow an opponent to average more than 6.0 yards per carry in a game. It’s happened in each of the last two weeks (Marshall, ULL), and in the last three games OU has not been able to get a stop on key fourth-quarter drives when the opponent wanted to simply run the clock out.

It’s the kind of issue that stands out on tape, and you can bet Buffalo, NIU and Western Michigan will employ inside running against Ohio over the next month.

There’s reason to believe Ohio will figure it out however. The Bobcats have a track record of improving as the season goes on. In fact, just last year OU gave up 38.3 points per game in its first four games, but had shaved that number down to 24.6 by season’s end.

The defense hasn’t played up to expectations yet, but is doing some things right — like a 34.0 percent conversion rate on third downs. If OU can solve in the inside run issues, it’ll be able to get back on track.

Inconsistent offense and slow starts

During the three-game slide, OU has consistently waited until the second quarter to get on track offensively. The Bobcats had no points on its first four possessions against Pitt, had a pair of 3-and-outs to open the game at Marshall, and punted on its four possessions (with 3 3-and-outs) against Louisiana.

Whether it’s improper scripting, surprise defensive changes, or lack of focus, it’s forced the defense into awkward positions and left Ohio to play catchup in each of the three losses.

The running game, a vital part of the record-setting offensive seasons in 2017-18, has been hit or miss early this season. Without a dependable ground game, converting third-and-medium has been an issue and led to some of the early misfires offensively.

For instance, after averaging 7.3 yards per carry against Rhode Island the Bobcats were shut down at Pitt (1.2 per carry). After ripping off 7.2 yards per carry at Marshall, OU managed just 3.7 against Louisiana.

Injuries — each of OU’s top three backs were out at the end against ULL — have certainly impacted the ground game. But it’s something that needs to be figured out.

“We are obviously going to have to get that corrected if we’re going to be the football team that we want to be as we go down the rest of our schedule,” Solich said.

The reason to believe it could change rests with the strength of the defenses faced — Pitt, Marshall and ULL would all likely be one of the defenses in the MAC — and the fact OU is breaking in a new set of backs. With more experience, including with the reconstituted offensive line, it’s not difficult to see OU start ramping up the rushing yards again.

Big plays

After four games last season, Ohio had generated 58 ‘chunk’ plays — runs of 10 yards or more and passes of 15 yards or more. In 2017, that number was 48 after four games.

Through four games this season, the number has dipped to 41.

With youth and inexperience dominating many of the skill positions, it’s expected there would be a drop-off. But OU has shown enough sizzle from the young players thrust into big roles to believe this could reverse course.

For instance, redshirt freshman wide receiver Shane Hooks has seven catches on the season and has been targeted 12 times; He’s turned those into five chunk plays and two touchdowns. Sophomore WR Isiah Cox leads Ohio with 22 targets, and has matched Hooks with five chunk plays. The duo leads Ohio in that deparment.

Rourke leads all players with eight chunk runs in four games — the four running backs used have combined for 11.

Tight end Ryan Luehrman, targeted 15 times in four games, has added four impact plays.

Cox, Hooks, and Luehrman are getting major reps for the first time in their careers. Add in Buckner, and that’s a lot of potential that Ohio develops sooner rather than later.

Ohio also needs established lead receiver Cameron Odom, a junior, to get on track. He’s been targeted 14 times, and has just one chunk play on the season. Again, he’s got a proven track record and should round into form.

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

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