Ohio University RB Maleek Irons tries to shake a tackle by Howard University DB Tye Freeland during the Bobcat’s season opener at Peden Stadium on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Haldan Kirsch/WOUB)

Ohio Football Travels to Illinois for a Battle with NIU

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They haven’t made it easy, but the Ohio Bobcats (3-2) are over .500 and set to battle the Northern Illinois Huskies (3-3) on the road this Saturday.

Ohio dug themselves into 14-point holes early each of the past two weeks, first in a 58-42 victory over UMass and again to start last week’s 27-26 triumph over Kent State, Frank Solich’s 100th victory at Ohio.

A couple of record-setting performances from quarterback Nathan Rourke erased those deficits. Air Canada’s 459 yards of total offense got things rolling against the Minutemen and didn’t stop against Kent State where he broke the single-game completion record (90 percent).

“Generally, that comes from having a good running football team that you’re able to have high percentage passes coming from that.” Head coach Frank Solich said in his weekly press conference. “He’s (Rourke) picking the right moments to scramble and picking up some crucial firsts for us just by his legs and running on a designed throw. He’s a complete quarterback, and I think that’s really showing now.”

Other than the early deficit, Ohio also had to overcome a barrage of injuries throughout the game to key pieces like running back Maleek Irons, cornerback Jaylen Fox, and offensive tackle Joe Lowery. Even Rourke himself went down with an injury on the failed two-point conversion try at the end of the game.

The jury will be out all week on whether these guys can suit up against the Huskies. In the midst of conference play, Coach Solich keeps injury news to himself.

“Well, we’re probably not going to talk a great deal about his (Irons) injuries. We’re going to let that question fly over my head. It’s flown over,” Solich said.

Ohio is going to need all hands on deck offensively against NIU who ranks as the best scoring defense in the Mid-American Conference (23.7 PPG). The Huskies are headlined by defensive end Sutton Smith who picked up 14 sacks last season and is tied for 19th in the country with five sacks this season. Smith can stop the run just as well, he leads the MAC with 10.5 tackles for loss.

“Really great players make plays. So, he’ll make some great plays because he’s a great player. We’ve just got to make sure that he’s not so disruptive to us that we don’t have an offense,” Solich said about Smith. “They are really a strong defensive football team; probably the best defensive team we’ll play after this point.”

Smith has formed a one-two punch with linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis. The redshirt junior has had an immediate impact for NIU, ranking third in the MAC with 11 tackles per game. Jones-Davis can rush the passer as well, sitting in a tie for the eighth-most sacks in the conference (3).

Under Solich, Ohio has won both road matchups against the Huskies and they are trying to even the all-time series at 11 wins apiece. A brutal non-conference schedule including Florida State, Utah, and Iowa has left this NIU team battle tested for MAC play.

“They have some special players. They’re physical, they run really well. They’ve got a good package to stop the run. Their pass rush is real trouble for most teams to handle,” Solich said. “They’ve played a very tough schedule in the non-conference, and they were very representable in terms of playing those non-conference games.”

Kickoff from Dekalb, Ill. is slated for 3:30 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN+ and heard on WOUB 1340 AM.