It was a rematch 100 years in the making, and one that gave Tim Albin a chance to enjoy the same story-book opportunity his predecessor enjoyed.
But instead of a paradigm-shifting outcome on national television in front of a full house, Albin and his Bobcats were squashed 29-9 in the 2021 season opener on Saturday night at Peden Stadium.
There was no delirious overtime walk-off win, with fans rushing the field, like Frank Solich saw in his first home game as the Ohio head coach in 2005. That 16-10 win over Pitt remains OU’s last win against an ACC opponent. This time around the Bobcats gave up the early momentum with special teams plays that went awry, and never did enough after to put any heat on the Orange (1-0), who entered after a 1-10 2020 season.
“We just couldn’t get enough things done,” Albin said after his FBS head coaching debut after more than 30 years in the profession. “Just couldn’t get a touchdown to put the heat back on.
“We had them on the ropes a couple times, we just couldn’t punch it in.”
Syracuse ran the ball 44 times, kept the vertical shots downfield to a bare minimum, and stayed a conservative two-deep defense most of the night. The Orange kept things basic, in stark contrast to the Dino Babers that Ohio was familiar with, and turned in a win that was, well, very Solich-esque.
RB Sean Tucker piled up a career-high 181 rushing yards and a second-half touchdown run while averaging 7.2 yards per carry. QB Tommy DeVito was efficient and careful with the football; while the vast majority of his throws were short (11 of 17, 92 yards), he took just one sack, had no glaring mistakes and added 49 rushing yards and a score of his own. Collectively, the Orange rushed for 283 yards and 6.4 yards per attempt.
Ohio safety Jarren Hampton (10 tackles) led a game Bobcat defense, which kept the game manageable with some key red zone stands of its own. But the Orange kept pounding away, and put the contest out of reach with two run-it-out drives in the second half.
“When our backs (were) against the wall we started making some stands. But like you said, we gave up too many yards on the ground,” Hampton said. “I think all the players kept our heads up and kept fighting.”
Ohio was outgained only 383-346, and in fact played the game they wanted for much of the first half. OU out gained Syracuse 171-139 in the first half, and had a better than a seven-minute edge in time of possession, but trailed 12-6 at the break conceding the high ground with a disastrous first-quarter sequence.
The ‘Cats opened the game with a methodical 12-play drive that crested at the Syracuse 33. On fourth-and-3, Albin made his first notable in-game call as head coach and sent out Stephen Johnson for a 50-yard field goal attempt.
The kick was online, but came up a yard short. Two plays later, Tucker erupted around the right end for a 47-yard gain. Four plays after that, DeVito kept the ball on a read for an untouched 6-yard touchdown run.
That was tough enough, but it immediately got worse for Ohio. De’Montre Tuggle muffed the ensuing kickoff, and instead of downing the ball in the end zone for a touchback, tried to return it. He was cut down on the one.
“You tell them in meetings ‘Hey, this is the rule.’ He will learn from it, and the right thing to do is be on the ball, get the ball (and down it),” Albin said.
On Ohio’s next play, Tuggle was swamped in the end zone for a safety. Nine minutes in, the Bobcats were down two scores and never got back to even.
“THAT will keep me up tonight,” the coach added.
The Bobcats threatened to make a real game of it, but couldn’t really squeeze the Orange. A first-and-goal situation late in the first quarter resulted only in Johnson’s 22-yard field goal. Trailing 12-3 late in the second quarter, Ohio notched a first down at the Syracuse 15-yard line but again had to settle for 3 — on Johnson’s 30-yard boot with 19 seconds left in the half.
The six-point deficit was as close as Ohio would get. Syracuse added another field goal, and Tucker’s 6-yard TD in the third for a 22-6 lead going into the fourth. The Bobcats got another first-and-goal, but elected for Johnson’s chip shot 25-yard field goal to make it 22-9 with 11:21 left.
The Orange put the game out of reach with Cooper Lutz scoring on an 11-yard touchdown with 5:15 to go.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, suffered one more indignity in trying to close out a drive. Quarterback Kurtis Rourke was intercepted in the end zone with 2:29 to go, on a deep throw down the sideline, after Ohio had driven to the 26.
For the game, Ohio created six first downs inside the Syracuse 40-yard line, or legitimate scoring chances. The ‘Cats totaled just nine points on those six chances (1.5 per chance) against the 27 points the Orange scored off five similar opportunities.
“Just having that awareness of where to throw the ball. Where to run the ball. That comes with practice,” Rourke said. “We have a lot of great athletes. I know, towards the end of season, even next game for sure, that we’ll correct it.”
Rourke was efficient until his final throw, and completed 21 of 28 overall for 142 yards. He rushed for a career-high 21 yards, and even hauled in a reception for 38 yards on a trick play.
Wideout Jerome Buckner had a breakout game with seven catches for 102 yards. Tuggle finished with 65 rushing yards on 16 carries.
Rourke took the lion’s share of reps at quarterback with backup Armani Rogers (32 yards passing, 5 rushing) getting just a handful of opportunities.
It was a winnable game for Ohio, but the buzz of the season opener, a great crowd (23,904) and the pregame ceremony and sideline presence throughout of former head coach Frank Solich did nothing to erase the disappointment that coated the second half.
Despite that, Albin was positive afterward. The Bobcats are just getting started and he liked several things that he saw:
- The offense had few real mistakes (turnovers, negative yardage plays, sacks)
- Rourke looked like the every-down quarterback
- Buckner gave promise to big-play receiver
- The defense caved a bit late, but gave OU a chance to stay in the game for three quarters
Given the choice of a carrot or a stick, Albin went with the carrot in postgame. When asked why, he said it’s a no-brainer.
“This football team makes it easy for this staff to do that. We’re going to have a great product, I really believe that.”
Ohio continues the season next Saturday with a 2 p.m. home start against Duquesne back at Peden Stadium.