Bobcats Football
The Bobcats gather to sing the Alma Mater following their 33-31 loss to Marshall on September 14, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: Bobcats Struggle Through Non-Conference Slate

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ATHENS, OH — Back in August, no one inside the Ohio football program thought that their non-conference schedule would be easy.

A trip to Pittsburgh to take on the defending ACC Coastal Division champions, a trip to Huntington to play rival Marshall, a team picked to play for the C-USA Championship and a visit from the Ragin’ Cajuns of Louisiana, yet another team picked to play for a conference championship in the preseason.

On paper, a 1-3 record might not be too surprising for a team that lost so many to graduation this past spring. But, in the end, it’s not that the Bobcats lost the three games mentioned above, it’s how they lost them.

After their season-opening win over FCS Rhode Island, neither side of the ball has put together a full game’s worth of solid enough play to win football games.

Starting with the defense, a thread running through all four games for the Bobcats has been the inability for the defense to generate sacks and takeaways at the same level they were last season. 

In the first four games in 2018, the ‘Cats got to flaunt the ‘Turnover Belt’ nine times. So far in 2019, they’ve busted out the belt just twice.

It’s much the same story for sacks as well. After four games last season, the Ohio defense had racked up seven QB sacks, but have just five this season. This includes a stretch of 78 consecutive opposing quarterback dropbacks without a sack spanning from the first quarter against Pittsburgh to the second quarter against Louisiana.

This has allowed opposing QBs to pick apart a Bobcat secondary that many thought would be a strength due to their experience coming into the season.

Ohio has given up over 1,000 yards through the air already this season and ranks 106th in the country in passing yards allowed. Overall, the ‘Cats rank 97th in total passing defense. 

This isn’t too far off of where Ohio has been nationally in the past couple seasons, but the Bobcats’ defense has been strong enough in other areas (takeaways, rush defense, etc.) to make up for a subpar pass defense.

Speaking of the rush defense, in the last three seasons, the Bobcats have ranked no lower than 32nd nationally in rush defense. That includes two top 15 placings. The 2019 ‘Cats are nowhere close to that through four games.

By virtue of giving up 208.5 yards per game on the ground, at 5.5 yards per rush clip, the Bobcats rank 118th in the country in rush defense.

All together, Ohio ranks 115th nationally on defense. That would rank as the worst defense of the Frank Solich era if they keep up at this current pace.

One major fix that would drastically boost the defensive performance would be improving the tackling. Opposing ballcarriers have bounced off of would-be Bobcat tacklers all season and it has been a focal point of practices for a few weeks.

Maybe the bye week gave the ‘Cats the chance they needed to patch up their tackling woes. If not, their championship aspirations may slip out of their grasp just like the ballcarriers have.

Unfortunately for Ohio, things haven’t looked much better on the offensive side of the ball.

After scoring on their first seven meaningful drives against Rhode Island in the opener, the Bobcats offense has been very hot and cold. 

Against Pitt, the offense managed just 212 yards. In Marshall, the offense started slow and let the Thundering Herd build a lead going into halftime and against Louisiana, the offense sputtered all-day long.

Some of these growing pains were expected given the hit the entire offense took to graduation, but it has overall been very inconsistent.

The ground game, a staple in the Bobcats offense for as long as Solich has been in Athens, has not truly gotten going to this point. A running back corp that was touted for its depth in the preseason has seen injuries and inexperience bog it down to just 159.8 yards per game, putting it as the 71st ranked rushing offense in college football.

To be fair to the young running backs, they have faced some tough defenses in the first month of the season and the bye week should get them much closer to 100 percent health, but a solid running game has historically been required for the Ohio offense to run at full speed.

Needless to say, the pass offense has had its ups and downs as well. Nathan Rourke has tossed for just 857 yards and six touchdowns in the first four games. Not a bad start for the senior quarterback compared to his first two seasons at the helm of the Ohio offense, but he has yet to get into any kind of rhythm outside of the Marshall game.

The receiver corp has also seen its fair share of injuries at the top of the depth chart, so that may contribute to the Bobcats’ 87th ranked pass offense.

Altogether, the ‘Cats rank 92nd in total offense, averaging just 374 yards per game. 

Perhaps the worst stat of all for Ohio is their -6 turnover margin, good for 120th in the nation, a stat which falls on both the offense and defense.

The Bobcats may have lost a pair of close games on the road to good Pitt and Marshall teams and trailed by just six at home to a good Louisiana team in the fourth quarter, but the scoreboard hasn’t truly told the story for Ohio in the non-conference schedule.

For stretches of the three games against FBS teams, the ‘Cats have looked bad, and even when they are able to come back in those games, the poor play has outweighed the good things they have done in those games.

Outside of the injuries, the things plaguing the Bobcats in the early season, such as inconsistency and inexperience, can get better with time. Young players will get more accustomed to their new roles and veterans will get more comfortable with the new faces playing beside them. 

Despite the record, this can still be a good football team. 

But for now, they deserve their 1-3 record.

For the Bobcats MAC Championship drought to end in December, they will have to get these issues corrected soon because conference play starts next Saturday.