Game 4 Preview: ‘Cat Fight Awaits Ohio in Evanston

Ohio QB Kurtis Rourke and RB De’Montre Tuggle will try to the get Bobcats’ offense on track at Northwestern on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021. Photo by Jason Arkley

Everyone remembers Frank Solich’s second game as the head coach with the Ohio Bobcats — that delirious 16-10 overtime home win over Pittsburgh in front of a full house and a national television audience.

But Solich’s OU debut was a stinker. It came seven days earlier and featured the ‘Cats taking a 38-14 loss on the chin at Northwestern. Ohio was non-competitive that day, out gained 550-239, and the afternoon at Ryan Field was best encapsulated for OU when Solich did his postgame press conference outside the locker room — while a garbage truck backed up less than 20 yards away and drowned out most of recording with obnoxious back-up beeps.

Tim Albin’s first three games as Solich’s successor have all included the same kind of pessimistic inevitability that marked that season back in 2005. Ohio (0-3) has been outplayed, and hurt itself, while dropping three straight to open this year against Syracuse, Duquesne (FCS), and Louisiana. The Bobcats are stuck trying to salvage the finale of the non-conference schedule, and avoid the program’s first 0-4 start since 2008.

And here’s a return trip to Northwestern (1-2, 0-1 Big Ten) up next on the schedule. Kick off is set for 12 p.m. ET, and the game will air on the B10 Network. The Wildcats are defending B10 West champs and paid a pretty penny to schedule Ohio is this spot — as a tune up before diving into conference play for the rest of the season. 

Little has gone right for the Bobcats so far — and OU has done virtually nothing ‘well’ to this point — but Albin is still tasked with getting his team to show some steps forward after a 10-day layoff. 

“We’re going to continue to forge ahead. I’m disappointed, I’m not discouraged,” Albin said this week. “No one is more disappointed with the record of this football team than me. But I love this team. They are battling.”

Love is supposed to conquer all, but it hasn’t translated on the field yet for Ohio. The Bobcats enter as both one of the worst offensive teams in all of the FBS (16.3 ppg, 120th out of 130 teams), and one of the worst defensive outfits (35.3 points allowed, 113th). 

Injuries haven’t helped. Safety Jarren Hampton, a three-year starter, missed the game at Louisiana and isn’t expected to return for Northwestern. The Bobcats are playing without their top three offensive guards — Kurt Danneker and Brody Rogers have been sidelined with knee injuries and Hagen Meservy hasn’t suited up this season. That interior strength, expected to be a boon, has become an unknown. Bryce Ramer made his first career start a week ago, and Christophe Atkinson is expected to make his first on Saturday after logging a lot of reps at Louisiana.

Special teams? Missed kicks and mistakes have been too prevalent, but Ohio isn’t standing pat. Ohio is using both incumbent Jack Wilson and newcomer Jonah Wieland to split the punting duties, with Wieland getting MAC East Player of the Week honors this week. Stephen Johnson has been demoted as the place kicker after four misses in three games. Tristan Vandenberg, who handled kickoffs and extra points against the Cajuns, will be the first up at Northwestern, Albin said. 

“Our mentality is man down, next man up. That’s going to be our approach,” Albin said. 

But the biggest issue is Ohio’s run defense. Ineffective is the kindest way to describe it after three games; OU is allowing 5.51 yards per attempt on the ground, and ranks 124th nationally by giving up 253.7 yards per game on the ground. Changes are incoming, Albin said. Time will tell if they’re the right ones.

“We’re looking at everything. Trying to simplify. Getting the right 11 guys on the field,” Albin explained. “Looking at some more 4 down (linemen). The numbers show we’re more consistent with 4 down.

“We got to get the ballcarrier down. Tackling better is going to help …but we got to find a way to better stop the run consistently for sure.”

And you can expect the rotating quarterback philosophy to continue. Kurtis Rourke has started each of the three games so far, but the reps have also increased each week for backup Armani Rogers. Both were on the field at the same time for stretches at Louisiana. 

“That’s got to continue as a package,” the coach said. “The production was there. We got to continue to build on that.”

I know this sounds like a gumbo of bad news and certainly nothing conducive to expecting a change of fortune on Saturday. If you want reasons to hope for a Bobcat rebound, here’s five things that could make a difference

  1. Northwestern is not the title contender it was a year ago. The Wildcats lost more to roster turnover than virtually any other team in the country, and it’s been tough sledding so far.
  2. The Wildcats have some of the same issues Ohio does. They were non-competitive in the first half of losses to Michigan State (38-21) and at Duke (30-23) last week. Northwestern is 104th in both scoring offense (22.7 ppg) and in rushing defense (188.3), and hasn’t taken care of the ball. Only six teams in the country have more turnovers than the Wildcats’ seven through three games.
  3. NW has quarterback issues. Starter Hunter Johnson was pulled at Duke last week after being on the hook for four turnovers. Backup Andrew Marty sparkled, but suffered an injury to his “upper body” (code for concussion) and couldn’t finish. Ryan Hilinski finished up and did nothing to claim the spot. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald used the always helpful “OR” on the depth chart this week with all three QBs in determining a starter.
  4. Ohio will have some of its explosive ability back in the lineup. WRs Jerome Buckner (shoulder) and Isiah Cox (suspension) were expected to play, Albin said Monday. 
  5. Albin is still a believer. He continues to insist he has been seeing flashes, and that’s true but they’ve been too few and far between. “There are bright spots. We just have to continue to work on playing four quarters and getting more consistent with that.”

The game will hinge, of course, on if Ohio can provide any resistance in the front seven. The Wildcats have been mediocre on the ground this season, but with quarterback issues — and B10 size up front — you can expect Northwestern to try to dictate terms through physicality. 

It’s a challenge that Ohio hasn’t won in any of the three previous games this season. The statistics indicate the Bobcats will likely be in for another rough afternoon. Albin remains positive that better football is on the horizon. 

“There are things that are unacceptable. Be truthful with the guys. This is what has to take place,” he said. “We’ve had some tough conversations with the staff and the players, and they have responded. 

“The kids are fighting. Their heads are up and their shoulders are back. It’s Bobcat pride.”

There’s still time to craft something positive from the 2021 season, but without progress — and soon — Ohio is staring at a season unheard of in a generation.

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