Game 7 Preview: Time to Lean In

Ohio QB Armani Rogers (left) and OG Hagen Meservy (right) will try to help the Bobcats to their first road win of the season on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 at Buffalo. Photo by Jason Arkley

The Bobcats begin the second half of the 2021 season on Saturday with a high noon kickoff against Buffalo at UB Stadium in Amherst, N.Y. The game will be streamed on ESPN+.

And despite six weeks of disjointed offense, porous defense, maddening missed kicks, and too many injuries across the board, Ohio (1-5, 1-1 MAC) remains in contention in the without-a-single-winning team MAC East Division. The Bobcats — to borrow a well-worn phrase — control their own destiny; if they win out they’ll be division champs.

Seriously.

“I’m gonna go glass half-full,” said first-head OU head coach Tim Albin this week. “We’re challenging our guys to understand that every play is going to be important.”

It’s hard to see Ohio running the table over the second half of the season, winning the division, and qualifying for a bowl bid. With one of the nation’s least productive offense, a defense among the nation’s worst against the run, and a kicking game that remains decidedly out of sync, the Bobcats have a mountain’s worth of issues and just weeks to reverse course.

But if you’re into hope, there’s two places Ohio fans can find solace. First, OU has been more competitive in MAC play, scoring 61 of their 116 points this season in two league games. 

Secondly, Ohio has decided to lean into what it does best and the quarterback that is better equipped to do it. The Bobcats have always been run-first in approach, and now are even more so with the ascension of grad transfer quarterback Armani Rogers to the top of the depth chart.

Rogers made his first Ohio start in last week’s 30-27 homecoming loss vs. Central Michigan, and played well. He completed 13 of 18 passes for an Ohio-career high 190 yards. Rogers also took every snap at the position — a first for the team in the last two seasons. For the season, Rogers has just 31 pass attempts, and ranks third with 261 rushing yards. 

Redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke (73 of 115, 602 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs) may yet still play, Albin said again this week. But Rogers hasn’t surrendered a snap in the last six quarters. 

“Armani deserves to start. We’ll evaluate practice. I think I said in postgame you’re going to see both of them,” Albin explained. “Who’s being productive? Armani was getting things done. 

“We’ll have them both ready to play and see how the progression goes.”

Ohio is going to double down on the run game, which has produced everything but points. The Bobcats are fourth in the MAC in rushing offense, and lead the league — by a full half-yard — in yards per carry at 5.49 per attempt. With 5.87 yards per offensive play, Ohio ranks third in the MAC.

The offense is clicking right? Uh, not exactly. While it has ticked in the right direction of late, Ohio still ranks 11th in the MAC in scoring (19.3 ppg, 116th nationally), and 11th in passing offense. The Bobcats have just four touchdown passes on the season and are one of the nation’s worst teams on third down (31.3 percent conversions, 118th).

Finishing drives in the red zone, extending drives, and finding ways to create offense against defenses capable of curtailing the running game have been issues all season for Ohio. 

“I’ve been encouraged by a lot of things, but some things keep coming up,” Albin said.

Among the most devastating of those things has been the rushing defense. Ohio gives up 241.7 rushing yards per game — last in the MAC and 127th out of 130 nationally. The ‘Cats have given up 200+ rushing yards four times in six games, and twice allowed more than 300. 

Injuries have played a part. For instance, Ohio played without starting defensive backs Jamal Hudson and Jett Elad against CMU, then lost both starting safeties — Michael Ballentine and Tariq Drake — to injury during the game. The status for all four remains in doubt for Saturday.

Run fits from the secondary are essential against Buffalo, the MAC’s leading scoring offense (31.2 ppg) and third-best on the ground (209.7).  The Bulls are big and physical up front, will run a trio of three backs throughout the game including Kevin Marks Jr. (368 yards, 5 TDs) and Dylan McDuffie (349, 5 TDs), and have a veteran QB in Kyle Vantrease capable of serving as another threat on the ground. Buffalo leads the nation with 18 rushing touchdowns. 

The Bulls will approach the game, offensively, the same way as Ohio. Establish a power run game, then look to land big plays off of it.

“Find a way to run the ball. Gotta find a way to stop the run. And then be sound in the kicking game,” Albin said. “It’s cliche, but that’s what it comes down to for us.”

Ohio swapped to a new long snapper for placekicks during the CMU loss. Senior TE Adam Luehrman, already handling punt snaps after a preseason season-ending injury to the regular long snapper, has added place-kick snaps to his repertoire. 

It’s the latest attempted fix for the kicking woes. Ohio has missed five of 12 field goals this season and a pair of extra points. Stephen Johnson, the ‘starter’ a week ago, missed one of each. 

It’s been the one constant this season. Albin and the staff keep trying changes, in personnel and approach, to find the right fit. The recent switch to Rogers and running the ball nearly 75 percent of the time has provided tangible positive effects for the offense. But finding consistent fixes for the other areas has remained elusive. 

“As a staff we’re going to continue to work on personnel, getting our best 11, and moving forward to winning a close game in our league,” Albin said.

Another loss wouldn’t eliminate Ohio from contention — Kent State is looming in Week 8 after all. But it would clinch a non-winning season, Ohio’s first since 2014. To keep that hope alive, Ohio will have to win at Buffalo in a series where the home team has won nine of the last 10 meetings.

The only exception was OU’s trip to UB in 2019, when the Bobcats won 21-20 in overtime on the strength of Louie Zervos’ PAT kick. The matchup last season was called off on Friday before the game due to COVID-19 roster issues within the Ohio program. 

Around the MAC

  • Ohio (1-1) at Buffalo (0-2), 12 p.m.
  • Ball State (1-1) at Eastern Michigan (1-1), 2 p.m.
  • Akron (1-1) at Miami (1-1), 2 p.m.
  • Kent State (2-0) at Western Michigan (1-1), 3:30 p.m.
  • Toledo (1-1) at Central Michigan (1-1), 3:30 p.m.
  • Bowling Green (0-2) at Northern Illinois (2-0), 3:30 p.m.

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