Nathan Rourke OShaan Allison Bobcats Football
Nathan Rourke (12) hands off to O’Shaan Allison (28) during a game between Ohio and Pitt on Sept. 7, 2019. PHOTO: Charles Hatcher/WOUB

Ohio Football: ‘Cats Turn Page to MAC Play Against Buffalo

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ATHENS, OH — September certainly wasn’t the Bobcats’ month. After three straight losses, Ohio limped into their bye week at 1-3 with a banged-up and struggling offense and a disappointing defense.

But September is over now and the Bobcats need to wake up.

With their bye week behind them, the rejuvenated Bobcats look to start their Mid-American Conference schedule with a bang when they travel to Buffalo to face the Bulls (2-3, 0-1 MAC) in UB Stadium, a place Ohio hasn’t won in nearly a decade.

“We’ve had some tough luck up there. This team seems pretty resilient and it’ll be a huge challenge,” Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin said. “There’s only been a couple teams to win up there in the last few years. We’re looking to be one of those teams.”

The bye week couldn’t have fallen at a better time for Ohio, particularly for the offense. The Bobcat offense was missing its top two running backs and its starting center in their game on September 21 against Louisiana. Fast forward 13 days and there’s a chance the ‘Cats will have all three available to them in Buffalo.

“O’Shaan (Allison) is good to go. Julian (Ross) has practiced all week. We should have our full stable of guys,” Albin said.

Even if Steven Hayes is unable to go at center, having the full complement of running backs will be huge for an Ohio offense that is facing perhaps its toughest test in MAC play.

The Bulls rank at the top of the conference in rush defense to this point, only giving up an average of 96.2 yards per game on the ground. That total ranks 22nd in the country. Buffalo has also posted solid number preventing the pass as well, ranking 2nd in the MAC in that category through the first month of the season.

“Statistically, [Buffalo’s] defense has been gritty throughout the year, so it’s going to be a real big test. I don’t think that we can just line up and say that we’re going to just run the ball on them and that’s how we’re going to win it,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said. “We’re going to have to do a combination of running and passing.”

In their 34-20 loss to Miami last week in Oxford, the Bulls held the RedHawks to just 265 yards of offense including only allowing 2.6 yards per rush on 55 attempts.

“The strength of their defense is their front seven, they get after the quarterback,” Albin said. “They’re good at stopping the run.”

That front seven includes Ladarius Mack, the little brother of NFL superstar and Buffalo great Kahlil Mack. In his games against Ohio earlier this decade, Kahlil Mack would singlehandedly wreck games for the ‘Cats. The Bobcats hope that won’t continue with his brother.

To this point in the season, the Ohio offense has been very up and down. This trend has left them in the middle of the pack in the conference at every offensive stat. The ‘Cats rank sixth in rush offense (159.8 ypg), eighth in pass offense (214.3 ypg) and sixth in points per game (26.8 ppg). 

For Ohio to win this game, let alone achieve their main goal of a conference championship, their offense will need to improve in MAC play.

Improvement is also needed on the other side of the ball, too. However, for the most part, they only have themselves to blame for their less-than-stellar start to 2019.

“We’ve got to get back to fundamentals. Tackling fundamentals and fits – we’ve given up way too many yards after contact,” Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “If you make some of those tackles that we’ve missed or you don’t allow them to have yards after contact like we’ve done, those ballgames would’ve been different.”

Through four games, the Ohio rush defense has been downright awful by their recent standards. The 208.5 yards per game the Bobcats have given up ranks 10th in the MAC and 112th of 130 teams in the nation, a pace that would make them the worst run defense in the Frank Solich era.

Much of that has been due to, as Coach Collins said, the poor tackling that has reared its head time and time again in the ‘Cats three losses. 

“Some of it is that you just need to concentrate on getting it done at a higher level and trying to make sure that your players understand how important it is and the emphasis that we place on it,” Solich said of the tackling woes. “It has nothing to do with toughness. I know we’re tough.”

The tackling will have to be strong on Saturday for the Bobcats to come away with the victory. In the Bulls, Ohio faces the second-ranked ground game in the MAC. The 240.2 yards Buffalo averages on the ground also ranks 18th in the country.

The tandem of Jaret Patterson and Kevin Marks are both coming off of 100-yard performances against Miami and have combined for over 960 yards on the ground in their first five games.

“We got to be able to tackle these guys. They’re good running backs,” Collins said.

However, for as good as the Buffalo ground game has been, their passing game has struggled. Bulls’ starting QB Matt Myers has not yet found his footing in the starting role this season after taking over for Tyree Jackson. The redshirt freshman has completed just 46 percent of his passes for just over 600 yards in 4+ games.

He left last week’s game early in the third quarter due to injury and has not returned to practice this week. His replacement, Kyle Vantrease, didn’t fare much better against the RedHawks.

The recipe for the Bobcats to leave New York with a victory on Saturday evening is simple. They must force the Bulls to throw the ball and force a quarterback making his second career start, and first since 2017, to beat them.

Coming away with a victory on Saturday is also doubly important. Despite the 1-3 start, the Bobcats still can achieve nearly every goal they set for themselves in the spring.

A MAC East title and a MAC championship are still entirely available to them.

The Bobcats just have to take it.

Their first test of conference play is set to kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.