For 43 minutes and change, the Bobcats approached the offensive side of the football with all the apparent zeal of a bored child pushing the remnants of that meal’s brussels sprouts and spinach main course around on their plate.
There was a nibble here, a bite there, but near the end it was obvious there was a lot of work yet to be done.
Then De’Montre Tuggle swept the table clean and helped Ohio get back to even.
Tuggle, a senior running back, had a career-high 139 yards rushing and two touchdowns on a career-high 22 carries to lead the Bobcats (1-1) in a closer-than-expected 24-10 win over visiting Akron (0-2) at Peden Stadium on Tuesday night.
Tuggle was the most consistent piece of an offense that continued to swap quarterbacks, saw points denied on a pair of short field goal misses, and was outgained substantially by a team mired in a program-worst 19-game losing skid.
Ohio, which entered as a four-touchdown favorite, led just 17-10 with 6:25 remaining. The Bobcats then made the game dead simple; they handed the ball – over and over – to their best offensive player and let him find gaps behind an offensive line that zoned up the Akron front and marched straight ahead.
“We kind of challenged our linemen before they went out about getting some things done up front at a level that’s not going to put us in third-and-6 and fourth-and-2,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said. “It was a matter of them, I think, of doing a great job of responding to that.”
The result was a nine-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that Tuggle capped with his second score of the night – a burrowing 1-yard foray through the ‘A’ gap – with 2:02 left. Tuggle accounted for every single yard on the drive, which featured identical looking plays on every snap.
“At the end of the day they have to stop it,” Tuggle said. “They can know what it coming but they have to stop it.”
The possession even included a third-down conversion for Ohio, which were in short supply all game long. Tuggle bounced wide right on third-and-2 from the Akron 6 for a five-yard gain on the play before his score.
It was the Bobcats’ only third-down conversion of the half, and just the second on 10 chances overall. Ohio averaged 6.1 yards per play, but had four plays or fewer on seven of its 11 possessions.
“I can’t pinpoint one issue. We just have focus and dial in more,” Tuggle said.
The march gave Ohio a comfy, two-possession win even if it was as unfulfilling as a plate full of vegetables. Akron outgained Ohio 435-307 and controlled the game’s flow for most of the first three quarters.
The Zips proved to be a tough out with junior running back Teon Dollard ripping his way for a career-high 168 yards on 22 carries – or nearly twice as many rushing yards as Akron had as a team in any game in 2019. Redshirt freshman quarterback Zach Gibson was sacked three times, and threw two interceptions, but also completed 18-of-30 for 218 yards.
If not for the Bobcats forcing three turnovers – Jarren Hampton’s fumble recovery, and picks from redshirt freshman nickle Jett Elad and sophomore LB Keye Thompson – Ohio might have been staring at a very different result.
“We celebrate every win. The other team wants to win too,” Solich said.
“But we also understand that hey, we’re making it hard on ourselves and we have to get some things changed if we realistically want to battle for a conference championship.”
OU’s offense alternated quarterbacks in the first half, and seemed to pay the price for it by failing to establish a rhythm or consistency against an Akron defense that gave up 58 points just six days earlier.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Rourke manned the first three possessions, and helmed a touchdown drive followed by two four-play-and-punt series. Grad transfer Armani Rogers took the next three possessions, and also led a scoring drive on his first series before a pair of three-and-outs.
After halftime, Rourke took every offensive snap at QB – as few as there were overall as OU finished with just 50 total plays – and ended up with modest numbers (8 of 14 passing for 92 yards, negative-7 yards rushing with two sacks). Rogers, who totaled just nine offensive plays at QB, finished 2 of 3 passing for 30 yards with 17 rushing yards and a TD with one sack.
Solich didn’t commit to Rourke as the starter moving forward after the game despite the playing time disparity.
“We tried to give them both reps, we’ll see how it plays out from here,” the coach said.
Rourke started well enough, and found Shane Hooks for a 40-yard completion over the top on the game’s fourth play from scrimmage. Two snaps later, Tuggle wiggled his way back up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
Rogers got his turn early in the second quarter, with a series beginning at the Akron 41 after Hampton’s fumble recovery. Rogers exploded down the right side for 16 yards on a keeper on the first play. On the second, Isiah Cox hauled in tough sideline catch down the left side for 24 yards. On the third play, Rogers kept another zone read and beat everyone to the right front pylon for a 1-yard score and a 14-0 lead with 12:27 left in the half.
“We have potential to do great, we just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Tuggle said. “We have the potential to be very explosive.”
Akron owned the rest of the half. The Zips pulled to within 14-7 when Gibson fired a 14-yard touchdown to Nate Stewart to finish off a nine-play drive. Akron had a chance for more points, but kicker Cory Smigel was wide right on a 50-yard field goal attempt to end the half.
The Zips then opened the second half with a 10-play drive that Smigel finished with a 34-yard field goal. Akron trailed 14-10 after an extended sequence that saw the Zips run 29 of the previous 32 plays from scrimmage, and have possession the ball for 12:43 of game time compared to OU’s 1:15.
“You hit it on the head, sloppy tackling,” Thompson said. “We got to be a better tackling defense. We’re going to get that straightened.”
Ohio freshman kicker Tristian Vandenberg gave Ohio a 17-7 lead with 6:27 left in the third on a 44-yard field goal. But his troubles, Vandenberg missed two kicks in the opener, blossomed anew in the fourth.
Elad’s interception gave Ohio the ball inside the Akron 20 early in the fourth, but Vandenberg was wide right on a 28-yard field goal attempt.
On Akron’s next series, Will Evans pressured Gibson into a wobbly toss while on the run and Thompson was there for the pick. OU started in the Akron red zone once again, but this time Vandenberg missed, again wide right, on a 29-yard field goal.
In two games, Vandenberg has missed three of four field goal attempts and an extra point. After Tuggle’s fourth-quarter touchdown, walk-on freshman Jonah Fortkamp converted a clunky PAT kick.
“He’s beating himself up a lot. We don’t need to do that,” said Solich. “He’s just got to go back to work and not let it destroy him.”
After the two misses, OU took no chances on its final possession and put the game away behind an offensive line grouping that included Nick Sink, Kurt Danneker, Brett Kitrell, Gary Hoover and Hagen Meservy.
It was a strong finish, but Ohio will head into next Tuesday’s bout at rival Miami with a host of questions and unresolved issues nonetheless.
“The good thing about this team is they love work. If you have a team that is that way, you have a chance to get better,” Solich said.