MAC opener

Ohio sophomore wide receiver Isiah Cox (middle) and the rest of the Bobcats head to Buffalo on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019 for the 2019 MAC opener. Ohio (1-3), the preseason MAC East favorite, has lost three straight this season and will be looking to snap a four-game losing skid at UB.

Note: This preview appears in the Friday, Oct. 4 newspaper on Page B1.

Frank Solich has been doing this long enough, and well enough, that you already knew what kind of approach his team would have entering a bye week saddled with a three-game losing skid.

The message was simple and blunt: We believe in our guys. We have to work to get better. And when we get a little better, we’ll get on track.

There will be no big reset, no drastic lineup changes and no hitting of the panic button as Ohio (1-3) travels to Buffalo (2-3, 0-1 Mid-American Conference) for a key MAC East battle on Saturday at UB Stadium.

The Bobcats are staying the course, and hoping it takes them on a path that fulfills their potential. Ohio was the heavy preseason pick to win the MAC East, and a road win at UB would be the strongest signal yet that things are still on course.

“Early last week we said being 1-3 can strengthen us, or it can break us up and make us turn on each other,” said Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke.

“That happens to some teams. And this is something that brings some teams even closer,” he added. “We want to be one of those teams that gets better. I think it’s showing.”

Ohio has plenty of areas where it can show growth. It starts defensively where the Bobcats have been porous against the run, and have logged just two takeaways in four games. OU led the nation a year ago with 32 turnovers created, and have ranked in the MAC’s top four in rushing defense in 11 of Solich’s previous 14 seasons.

The Bobcats enter week five giving up 208.5 rushing yards per game — ninth in the MAC and 112th in the country — and allow a MAC-worst 5.5 yards per carry.

Contrast those facts with Buffalo, which ranks 18th in all of FBS with 240.2 rushing yards per game and has more rushing attempts this season (256 in 5 games) than any other FBS program in the nation. Ohio’s concerns with gap integrity and tackling will loom especially large.

With two weeks to address those issues, Ohio is eager to see if it can stand up to the charging Bulls. Buffalo has four returning starters and three seniors on the offensive line, and a duo of excellent backs — Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks — with which to do damage. Patterson (546 yards) and Marks (420 yards) rank third and fifth, respectively, in the MAC in rushing yards per game.

“We’ll get their best shot at running the football. I believe that will be their game plan going in,” Solich said.

To this point, the OU defense has had an inconsistent start. With conference play now here, it’s time to see the practice work pay off.

“There’s definitely a belief that we’re a good defense and we have the potential to be a great defense,” said junior outside linebacker Dylan Conner. “We have to tweak things here and there, and eventually we’ll get the numbers that we want to start seeing.”

The Bulls will be in desperation mode. UB, the defending MAC East champs, dropped a 34-20 loss at Miami last week thanks to four turnovers. A second conference loss this early in the season would logically knock them out of being a strong contender for a second straight title.

In addition, UB has offensive issues of its own. The Bulls run it a lot, but are getting less than 70 yards passing per game. And that was before starting QB Matt Myers was injured at Miami.

Myers did not practice through Wednesday of this week. If he can’t go, then sophomore Kyle Vantrease will make his first start of the season. Vantrease has been doubling as the Bulls’ punter since a week two injury to regular punter Evan Finegan.

Ohio’s own offense has been inconsistent as well. Injuries at running back had led to a ground game that has been there only in fits and starts. With Buffalo, which leads the MAC in total defense, rushing defense (95.6) and yards allowed per carry (2.7), it’s expected Rourke will have to make plays through the air if the Bobcats are to be successful.

Rourke will be trying to shake off four turnovers of his own in OU’s last game. He, too, knows that with the start of conference play there are no more resets. The next loss could be the one that keeps Ohio from a spot in the MAC Championship.

“There’s definitely a different mindset moving forward,” Rourke said. “They all count, and we want to win them all, but these games are the ones that are going to help us win a MAC Championship.”

So far, OU is just as close to the MAC lead as it as when the season started. That can change dramatically with a loss at Buffalo. And that’s happened plenty in the last 10 years. Ohio hasn’t won at UB since 2009, and lost in each of the last four visits to UB Stadium.

“There’s a different energy now,” Conner said. “There’s certain expectations now. We know we can’t drop games now.

“This is where it gets real.”

And real, for Solich, rests in the day-to-day grind of practice, film review and instruction. The Bobcats were bloodied by a tough non-conference slate, and the three-game losing skid is the program’s longest since 2013.

Solich isn’t going to hit the panic button. He’s going to double-down on the players he’s got. But the deadline comes on Saturday.

“I like our people. We just need to execute at a better level,” Solich said. “I think as the season goes on you’ll see us continue to improve.

“We can’t wait. That time to show ourselves as really being good offensively, and really making progress defensively, has got to be now.”

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

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