Game preview: Ohio vs. Akron

Ohio senior WR Cam Odom (right) breaks loose at Central Michigan on Nov. 4, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Abigain Dean

The Bobcats – perhaps improbably so – have made it to the home opener.

Now they’re trying to get on the winning side of the ledger.

Ohio (0-1) takes on visiting Akron (0-1) on Tuesday night inside Peden Stadium, in the MAC East opener for both sides. The game will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.

With disheartening COVID-19 news dominating the college football cycle – just look at Monday around the SEC for example – it should be counted an accomplishment that the Bobcats and Zips are even able to play at all. According to Rachel Lenzi at The Buffalo News, 49 FBS games have been canceled or postponed this season, including a whopping 12 in the last week.

But merely playing isn’t enough for Ohio, which hasn’t won the MAC title since 1968 and spent most of the last 15 years on the precipice of eradicating that drought. The Bobcats wanted a season, and got it.

They still want a championship.

“We feel we’re a good team,” said redshirt freshman quarterback Kurtis Rourke. “We’re going to show it.”

Uncharacteristic mistakes pockmarked OU’s opener, a 30-27 loss at Central Michigan last Wednesday. There were two lost fumbles, 11 penalties, five sacked yielded, and errant kicks. But despite the myriad assortment of miscues, the Bobcats had a chance to win on the road, in the first game of a very weird 2020, against the preseason MAC West favorite.

Sure, it was another close loss, but it was one that gave Frank Solich belief in his group moving forward. Ohio is 16-9 in MAC play over the last three-plus seasons; All nine losses have been one-possession affairs, and eight have been by three points or less.

The Bobcats have been here before.

A tweak here, a made kick there, one less flag overall…and Ohio would be entering Game 2 with a whole different feeling.

“They haven’t whined about anything,” Solich said, referring to all the extra demands being asked of his players this season. “They’ve done everything they can to overcome the obstacles in the way.

“I feel really good about this group.”

Ohio would love to play a more ‘clean’ game against Akron, but, truth be told it, it shouldn’t have to be close to perfect to take out the Zips.

Akron enters with the nation’s longest current losing streak, which stands at a whopping 18 games. Second-year head coach Tom Arth (0-13, 0-9 MAC) is still looking for his first win at Akron, and the Zips were whacked 58-13 by visiting Western Michigan in their opener last Wednesday.

Akron’s last win came on Oct. 27, 2018, in a 17-10 home win over Central Michigan. It’s last road win came the week before that, with a 24-23 overtime decision at Kent State.

In the last two matchups between the teams, Ohio has won both affairs by a decimating combined total of 101-31. The Bobcats won last year at Akron 52-3, and outgained the Zips 603-74.

Redshirt freshman Zach Gibson started at QB in the opener for Akron, and finished 18 of 30 for 125 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Akron’s ground game – worse than non-existent a year ago – finished with 130 yards on 32 carries thanks to a reworked backfield featuring converted flanker Jeremiah Knight and newcomer Teon Dollard. The Zips were held to under 600 yards rushing for the season in 2019, and never broke the 100-yard mark as a team.

It should be a walk-over for OU, but Solich can’t afford to think that way. It’s his job to make sure the Bobcats don’t think that way either. Any loss now can potentially KO the team’s MAC East title hopes.

“You’ve got to play every game the same way,” Solich said. “They’ll be fired up.

“You better show up … in order to get it done.”

What to watch for

Ohio’s roster situation remains in flux but isn’t as dire as it seemed as recently as Saturday. Solich said Monday that sophomore slot receiver Jerome Buckner should be available and “will get reps.”

Sophomore offensive lineman Kurt Danneker will be back from injury, and should be in the starting lineup.

Ohio is expected to be without slot receiver Tyler Walton, who Solich indicated is close to seeing action.

Also still out for Ohio are junior DT Kai Caesar and junior S Alvin Floyd – both projected starters – and junior RB Julian Ross. All three are thought to be sidelined for COVID-19 related reasons, be it positive tests or contact tracing concerns.

Caesar’s absence loomed large in the middle of the defensive line for Ohio at CMU. Will it matter as much against Akron which, according to Arth, still has a “long way” to go as a running team?

Reworked OL

The Bobcats’ ground game was inconsistent at CMU, and the five sacks allowed were too many for the 29 drop-backs Ohio employed.

Solich said Monday OU will have a different look up front. Danneker is expected to start, and will be slotted in at right guard. Senior Hagen Meservy, a three-year starter at RG, will slide out and be the starter at right tackle.

The other three OL slots – Nick Sink at LT, Brody Rodgers at LG and Brett Kitrell at C – are expected to remain unchanged.

The move would seem to be an indication of an injury, or subpar performance, from junior Samson Jackson, who started and played the majority of reps at RT in the opener.

QB shuffle continues

Solich indicated the two-QB rotation used in the opener – with Rourke and grad transfer Armani Rogers – will be prevalent again vs. Akron. The coach claims he’s no great fan of alternating quarterbacks, but says his belief is strong in both players.

Ohio’s play count, just 58 offensive snaps, in the opener wasn’t enough for him or the coaching staff to make a firm decision on the position.

“Both of those guys are deserving to play,” Solich said. “We’ve got to work to get them more reps.”

The Bobcats were pretty obvious in their play calling with the quarterbacks in the opener. Expect to see some more variety with the options given to both Rourke and Rogers in Game 2.

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