Over the last two weeks Kurtis Rourke has started to deliver on the potential he had flashed previously.
Many of Ohio’s hopes of finishing 2021 on the upswing rest with the redshirt freshman quarterback, who has been nothing short of brilliant of late. The Bobcats (2-7, 2-3 MAC) will need Rourke to be sharp in an expected shoot-out on Tuesday night at Eastern Michigan (6-3, 3-2 MAC). Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Mich. The game will be aired live on ESPN2.
“He didn’t play for two and a half games. He could have been a bad teammate, but he was a great teammate,” Ohio head coach Tim Albin said after OU’s 35-33 win over Miami on Nov. 2.
“(Fellow Ohio QB) Armani (Rogers) and Kurtis are great teammates when they’re not playing because there’s 11 players on the field and one ball,” Albin continued. “I’m proud of both of those guys for being great teammates and their play, both of them, when they are given opportunities they are coming in and being able to produce.”
Rourke was the starter at the beginning of the year, then gave up the reins to Rogers at halftime of Ohio’s first MAC game. After not seeing a single rep over the next 2.5 games, Rourke has been the lead QB for the last game and three quarters.
The results have been dramatic for the Bobcat passing game. Over the two games, Rourke has completed 77.1% of his passes for 596 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He’s also added a combined 93 rushing yards and another score.
With a passer rating of 135.6 for the year, Rourke would be eighth in the MAC in that stat if he had enough reps to qualify.
“What I really like about what we’ve been doing, we can throw guys in there because they know what they’re doing,” Rourke said. “They’re confident in themselves and I’m confident in them and we have that chemistry.”
That’s clearly evident with junior wide receiver Isiah Cox. After just four catches for 24 yards over the first seven games, Cox has picked up 13 catches for 179 yards with a pair of scores over the last two weeks. Suddenly, the Bobcats have some vertical oompf to add to their ground game.
“The last two games we’ve done a good job of moving him around, in the slot,” Albin said. “He’s one of our most experienced guys, with the most catches, you’re starting to see what he’s capable of.”
That’s the good news. The bad news is Ohio may need Cox to play on both sides of the ball. Injuries have ravaged the secondary — for instance walk-on and former equipment manager Alex Wolff has started the last two games at safety — and safety Jamison Collier suffered a leg injury in the win over Miami.
“He’s been working some in the secondary. We’re just so beat up in the back end,” Albin said. “He was a very good defensive back in high school…to be used in an emergency situation.”
Eastern Michigan is capable of putting extraordinary pressure on that secondary. The Eagles are just one of two teams who are bowl eligible so far in the conference, and have reached that point with the most efficient passing offense in the league.
EMU (in conference games only) leads the MAC with 313.6 passing yards per game. Quarterback Ben Bryant, a Cincinnati transfer, leads the MAC with a 150.0 passer efficiency rating; he’s completed 69.3% of his passes for 2,190 yards, 13 TDs and five interceptions this season.
The Eagles have two dangerous targets on the outside in Hassan Beydoun (64-730, 3 TDs) and Dylan Drummond (43-530, 5 TDs), and will incorporate TEs and RBs in the passing attack. EMU runs it less than any team in the league, but has still posted more than 50 points (55 and 52) over back-to-back wins against Bowling Green and Toledo. EMU is averaging 34.2 points per conference game.
Oh yeah, Ohio gave up 492 passing yards to Miami last week — including more than 400 in the second half alone.
“Their quarterback is having a phenomenal year,” Albin said. “I know we’ll be challenged. We were able to make Miami one dimensional. It’ll take that kind of effort again with our guys up front.”
EMU excels at pressure the quarterback defensively, and you may see OU take the approach of trying to control the clock and the line of scrimmage. RB De’Montre Tuggle could serve a big role in that regard, he’s tied for the MAC lead with seven touchdowns, and is sixth in the MAC in rushing (457 yards, 6.7 per carry average).
Ohio has won seven of the eight meetings since 2000, including a 27-20 2OT victory at Rynearson in 2017 — the most recent matchup. Ohio leads the all-time series 19-12-1.
The game will likely come down to the fourth quarter, which is old hat for the Bobcats by now. Each of their last four games have been decided by keep plays in the final minutes. Eastern Michigan, meanwhile, has seen 34 of its last 38 games finish in 1-possession territory.
“It is parity. It is who plays the best that night. This last game is a terrific example,” Albin said.
“We’ve been in every game and had chances to win. That’s why this last game was great for our kids. We found a way…to make a few plays down the stretch to come out on top. We’re looking to build off that.”
Around the MAC
With three weeks left, both division titles are up for grabs.
In the East, Kent State (4-1) scored a head-to-head winner over West-leading NIU (4-1) last week and faces a tough trip this week to CMU (3-2). If the Flashes win just one of the next two games, all they’ll need to do is win the regular season finale against visiting Miami on Nov. 27 to secure the division title. Miami, meanwhile, needs to win its next two to ensure that the finale means something for them.
In the West, NIU holds a one-game lead over a trio of challengers and faces Ball State this week; If the Cardinals win, they’ll hold the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Huskies. NIU already won head-to-head against EMU and CMU, meaning it essentially has a two-game lead on those two teams.
The MAC also saw its first coach firing of the season last week. Akron parted ways with third-year coach Tom Arth after the Zips lost 31-25 to Ball State last week. Arth was just 3-24 in two-plus years — with two of the wins against Bowling Green — but was set up to be little more than fill-in while university reset expectations following the dismissal of Terry Bowden.
Buffalo (2-3) at Miami (3-2), 7 p.m.
Akron (1-4) at Western Michigan (2-3), 7 p.m.
Ohio (2-3) at Eastern Michigan (3-2), 8 p.m.
Toledo (2-3) at Bowling Green (1-4), 7 p.m.
Ball State (3-2) at Northern Illinois (4-1), 7 p.m.
Kent State (4-1) at Central Michigan (3-2), 8 p.m.
MAC Standings (thru 11/8) East Division MAC PF PA Overall Kent State 4-1 192 196 5-4 Miami 3-2 131 103 4-5 Buffalo 2-3 171 164 4-5 Ohio 2-3 149 141 2-7 Akron 1-4 108 164 2-7 Bowling Green 1-4 146 195 3-6 West Division MAC PF PA Overall Northern Illinois 4-1 169 156 6-3 Ball State 3-2 143 122 5-4 Eastern Michigan 3-2 171 150 6-3 Central Michigan 3-2 153 147 5-4 Toledo 2-3 148 127 4-4 Western Michigan 2-3 153 169 5-4