Game 5 Preview: A new hope?

Ohio RB O’Shaan Allison (right) is expected to make his second straight start when the Bobcats play at Akron on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. Photo courtesy of Ohio Athletics/Maddie Bryant

The only thing that the Ohio Bobcats have had to hang their hat on so far this season is the fact that the opening month did nothing to impact their chances of winning the Mid-American Conference.

But that changes Saturday. Ohio (0-4) continues its search for answers at Akron (1-3), in a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Infocision Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3. Call it a reset, a new beginning, or the start of the season that really matters — personally I like ‘line in the sand’ — it’s a clear demarcation point for the Bobcats. 

If the MAC opener plays out like the non-conference season did, the Bobcats better brace for the possibility of a winless season. Akron, in year three under Tom Arth, has been as ineffective — barring a blowout home win over an FCS team so I guess they’re up on OU in that regard — as the Bobcats through four weeks.

Saturday’s loser will know they’ve likely played the other least threatening team in the league in the opener…and came up short. It’s not a recipe for a pleasant October and November. Tim Albin, still looking for that first win as Ohio’s head coach, has seen the ‘Cats vaunted offense fall off a cliff, the defense evaporate, and too many injuries in too many spots.

But Saturday is a new start, and with it comes hope.

“I applaud them for their effort. They have played their tails off,” Albin said of his team Monday. “Guys also know it’s conference time and we are 0-0. We’ve got a good opportunity against Akron.”

The Zips probably feel the same way. Ohio begins conference play as one of the worst offensive AND defensive teams in the nation. The Bobcats rank 127th (out of 130 teams) by scoring just 13.8 points per game. Ohio is 118th in scoring defense (35.3 ppg allowed) and ranks last nationally in rushing defense (283.5 rushing yards per game allowed). 

The Bobcats can’t get their defense off the field (125th in third down defense and 1 turnover forced) and can’t keep their offense on it (123rd in third down percentage).

“Offensively we couldn’t finish drives and put pressure on them,” Albin said of a 35-6 loss at Northwestern in Week 3. “We got to get the offense helping the defense, and the defense helping the offense.”

Akron, meanwhile, appears to be the same old Zips. UA has just two wins under Arth, and one over a FBS opponent — 31-3 against winless Bowling Green last season. And the Zips have set up residence in the same neighborhood of the national statistical rankings too. Akron’s defense (44.5 points per game allowed) is 129th, the rushing defense is 107th (189.8 yards per game) and the Zips have been just as bad on third down (128th, 55.0 percent allowed).

Akron was outscored 164-41 in non-conference losses to FBS opponents Auburn (60-10), Temple (45-24) and No. 10 Ohio State (59-7). Ohio was outscored 113-29 by Syracuse (29-9), Louisiana (49-14), and Northwestern (35-6).

If not for UConn-Vanderbilt this weekend, this game would likely be the dog of the week across the entire country.

But that will matter little to either side. Both needs wins to keep rosters invested, keep growing, and keep hope alive that a turnaround can happen. For Akron, that hope is tied to sophomore QB D.J. Irons and fourth-year LB Bubba Arslanian. Arslanian leads the MAC in tackles (43) and has the distinction of being the best player on a defense giving up 45 points per game.

Irons, a fluid, 6-6, 205-pound junior college transfer, has a big arm, natural scrambling ability, and swagger. He leads Akron with 649 passing yards and six touchdowns against three interceptions — and leads the Zips in rushing with 263 yards and two scores. 

Ohio hasn’t dictated any terms defensively in the first month, so it’s hard to envision it corralling the play-making Irons.

“There will be times when we need to have eyes on him. If we’re playing man coverage, we need to have eyes on the quarterback,” Albin said. “We’ll have to make sure we have guys where they need to be.”

Ohio’s hope is contingent on the Bobcats figuring out who they are, and what they do well. It’s been a meandering, sprawling four games for OU, which has shuttled players in and out of the lineup in a desperate effort to find something that clicks.

QB Kurtis Rourke (65.7% completions, 582 passing yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) looks like the starting quarterback, but Ohio has continued to work Armani Rogers into the mix more and more. Rogers has his strengths (122 rushing yards, 7.6 average) but clearly doesn’t add much to the throwing game (67 yards in four games).

Ohio has switched its top running back from De’Montre Tuggle (164 yards) to O’Shaan Allison (202 yards). Allison started last week, and Albin reiterated this week he’ll likely get the first call again.

“His production on the field has just been better. His production on the field warrants his opportunity,” Albin said. “Like the kickers, like the safeties, it’s about trying to get our best 11 on the field.”

Albin said Ohio’s kicker will be decided on game day; The ‘Cats are 3-7 on field goals this season. Ohio had two new starting safeties on the field at Northwestern as Tariq Drake and Michael Ballentine supplanted Alvin Floyd and Jarren Hampton (who has missed two straight games).

And there will be switching on the offensive line as well. Starting center Nick Sink suffered a serious knee injury at Northwestern, which will thrust Parker Titsworth into his first start on Saturday. Injuries have plagued the guard spots, but established veteran Hagen Meservy is set to return this week, Albin said. 

“It is what it is. We’re at double-digits now,” Albin said of the injury list.

Both teams have plenty of company in the MAC in trying to put disappointing non-conference slates behind them with the promise of the MAC race just beginning. Only two teams (Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, 3-1) have winning records after the first month.

Things have been ugly, disappointing, and just not good enough through four weeks. But the Bobcats can begin to dig their way back to some respectability by winning the conference opener, and manage to keep that hope alive for another week. 

Ohio leads the series 23-13-1, knocked off the Zips 24-10 last season, and handed Akron a 52-3 loss in their last trip to Infocision. The Zips’ last win in the series came in 2017.

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