The Mid-American Conference has hit the final stretch for the 2021 season.
Whether that stretch drive — played out in front of sparse crowds during made-for-TV broadcast windows — is a good thing or bad thing for the league depends on your perspective.
If you love Saturday football — the road trips, the get-togethers, the traditions, the full afternoons of rooting for your school and against a rival — then you’re not a fan. If you’re piddling around the house needing some sports-themed background sound, or a die-hard football nut, then you probably appreciate having football available for viewing every day of the upcoming month.
For the Bobcats (1-7, 1-3 MAC) the next four weeks of midweek starts offer a chance at…well, something. It’s not redemption, exactly, but there is a chance to start stacking some success for a springboard into 2022. There’s also the opportunity to spoil someone else’s season.
That opportunity comes Tuesday night at Peden Stadium. Ohio renews the ‘Battle of the Bricks’ by taking on visiting Miami (4-4, 3-1 MAC). The game will be broadcast on ESPNU and is set for a 7:30 p.m. start. The RedHawks enter locked in a tie atop the division with Kent State.
“It’s a chance to spoil a season for someone else. It’s a rivalry game. We’ll be ready to go,” said linebacker Cannon Blauser, fresh off a career-high 14 tackles in Ohio’s 34-27 loss to the Golden Flashes on Oct. 23.
It’s not ideal territory upon which to begin an end-of-season push, but it’s where Ohio will try to make its stand after losing three straight games by a combined 11 points. It’s been a season of near-misses and blowouts, injuries and missed opportunities, for the Bobcats. OU is 0-4 at home this season, and will need to either beat Miami or Toledo (on Nov. 16) to avoid its first winless at home campaign since 2001.
First-year head coach Tim Albin has tried to smile through it all. He said last week, again, he believes the Bobcats can finish strong.
“We’re a play or two away from winning games; that’s my responsibility, the coaching staff’s (as well),” Albin said last Monday during his weekly press conference.
“We’re so close. My glass is going to continue to be half-full. We’re going to keep coaching our tails off. This coaching staff is going to find a way to make a few of those plays in the fourth quarter
“The reward is coming, I know it.”
With a strong November, Miami will be rewarded with another MAC East title. The RedHawks won the division in 2019, and the championship by beating Central Michigan 26-21 that year. Eighth-year head coach Chuck Martin has rebuilt Miami into an against-the-grain winner in the points-happy MAC.
Miami is winning with defense, and execution. Since 2018, the RedHawks are 9-2 in one-score games, including 2-1 in their 3-1 start in MAC play this year. In four conference games, Miami has given up just 68 points (17 per game). The RedHawks are also clearly above the mean in rushing defense, giving up just 2.1 yards per carry and only 67.0 rushing yards per contest.
With 13 starters and 26 players still on the roster from the 2019 title team, the RedHawks make every game a rock fight and then rely on toughness and experience to win the game with those one or two plays that flip games in the fourth quarter.
In short, they’re the antithesis of Ohio this season.
“They win with their defense,” Albin said. “They play hard, they play physical, and they’re sound in what they do.”
Ohio knows first hand. Miami has won two straight in this long-running series; Ohio trails 40-54-2 all-time heading into Tuesday’s 97th meeting. The teams did not play in 2020 due to coronavirus issues with the Bobcats.
Ohio leads the series 25-22 in Athens, but Miami won the 2019 matchup 24-21 at Peden. The Bobcats outgained the RedHawks by nearly 100 yards, but lost to a 53-yard field goal with less than four minutes remaining and negative-2 ratio in turnovers.
Quarterbacks Brett Gabbert (927 yards, 8 TDs, 2 INTs) and A.J. Mayer (943 yards, 6-2) have turned in nearly identical statlines while splitting duties. Three different running backs have taken turns leading a balanced ground game. DEs Kameron Butler (4.0 sacks) and Ben Kimpler (3.0 sacks) lead a stingy front seven.
Also back is sixth-year WR Jack Sorenson (42 catches, 703 yards, 5 TDs), who has more receiving yards and touchdowns than Ohio’s top three flankers combined.
Ohio isn’t expected to announce a starter at quarterback. Armani Rogers (350 yards passing, 459 yards rushing and 6 TDs) started the last three games for OU, but Kurtis Rourke (946 yards passing with 4 TDs, 135 rushing with 3 more TDs) played the final three quarters against Kent State. Rourke had a career day while Ohio posted single-season highs in third-down conversions percentage (61.6%), time of possession (plus-6:20), and plays run (77).
Albin said both QBs will continue to get equal reps in practice. Ohio hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in the last 14 quarters of play.
“You don’t have a crystal ball, you have to go off your gut,” the coach said. “We got some things done (last week). Moving forward, we need to find the formula to play four quarters.”
Ohio’s issues go far beyond which quarterback starts, or which running back gets more opportunities; De’Montre Tuggle (553 rushing yards, 5TDs) and O’Shaan Allison (303 rushing yards) have been the primary contributors there.
Ohio’s defense has dealt with a revolving door at many spots due to injuries and has given up 200 or more rushing yards in five of eight games this season. While Albin is hopeful CB Justin Birchette and S Michael Ballentine can return this week, the Bobcats have forced just six turnovers all season and given up 47% conversions on third down.
Whether it’s been turnovers, penalties, injuries — or all three — the Bobcats have seemingly found ways to lose games this season. A third straight loss to the program’s biggest rival would only heighten the pressure on Albin to find something — anything — to show the there’s hope for the future.
Albin said the team’s culture and leadership will deliver some highlights soon. He firmly believes it.
“We’ve got a passionate fanbase. I know they’re disappointed,” Albin said. “I understand the frustration of our fanbase. They have every right to be upset. I understand.
“The leadership from the elders has been outstanding. The effort. Tremendous amount of character, courage. Injuries, next man up mentality,” he continued. “I think our culture has been on full display with their effort. I really do.”
Around the MAC
Ball State (2-2) at Akron (1-3), 7 p.m.
Miami (3-1) at Ohio (1-3), 7:30 p.m.
Eastern Michigan (2-2) at Toledo (2-2), 7:30 p.m.
Central Michigan (2-2) at Western Michigan (2-2), 7 p.m.
Northern Illinois (4-0) at Kent State (3-1), 7 p.m.