Nathan Rourke Bobcats Football
Nathan Rourke (12) directs the offense in the Bobcats’ 33-31 loss to Marshall on September 14, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weigolpolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: ‘Cats Look to Continue Winning Ways Against NIU

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ATHENS, OH — Homecoming is often said to be the best time of year in Athens. Between the cool weather, changing leaves, returning alumni and all the festivities, it’s hard to argue. The crown jewel of Homecoming is the football game and three out of the last four years, the Bobcats have come away victorious.

The 20,000-plus that will pile into Peden Stadium on Saturday afternoon hope that trend will continue, but head coach Frank Solich that this year’s opponent, Northern Illinois, will not be a pushover for Ohio (2-3, 1-0 MAC).

“The Ball State loss I’m sure was very tough on them. They’ll be upset. They’ll be wanting to get back on track. You have a loss in MAC play, that makes you a little bit more aggressive in terms of wanting to get something done and change that around to get back on the winning track,” he said. “Again, similar to the Buffalo game, we’ll be facing their best shot.”

The Huskies (1-4, 0-1 MAC) pay their first visit to Athens since 2014, a 21-14 loss for the ‘Cats, but have not been the Homecoming opponent since 1982.

For Northern Illinois, their 1-4 record may make it seem like they’re having a down year with a first-year coach, but they should present nearly every bit of the challenge that the Bobcats faced last year when they traveled to NIU and lost 24-21.

“To me, I don’t think they’re trying to have a new identity. I think they’re trying to be what Northern Illinois has been, and they’re recruiting really good players. You’re going to get the same philosophy in terms of hard-nosed football,” Solich said.

“They’re a strong physical defensive football team. That’s been their trademark, and I think that’s what they want to be,” he added.

Last season, the Huskies ranked 1st in the MAC in total defense, rush defense and scoring defense. 

Not much has changed.

They bring the MAC’s 2nd-ranked defense to Athens on Saturday, ranking 5th against the run and 1st in defending the pass. The 182.2 yards they’ve given up on average through the air also ranks 16th in the country.

“They’ve got a very unique alignment on third down. They go nickel or dime and nobody is down in a stance. They’re up and walking around. It’s some chaotic stuff,” Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin said. “We’re going to try to use some tempo, slow it down, speed it up, try to keep them off their heels best we can.”

The Bobcat offense has spent much of the season bouncing between being very good and frustratingly stagnant, but seemingly found a bit of an identity last Saturday in the second half against Buffalo.

O’Shaan Allison was given the ball 17 times in the final 30 minutes and overtime, averaging four yards per carry. For his efforts, the Bobcats’ workhorse back was awarded MAC East Player of the Week.

“You can see it in him. He’s a physical guy. He’ll go into contact. He’s got quickness, and he’s got a burst off of that quickness, so you could see that he was going to be a very good running back,” Solich said of Allison. “If you give him the ball enough, he’s going to show it.” 

In a game that came down to which offense was able to break through, the Bobcats offense found a rhythm they hadn’t had since the second half against Marshall, totaling 228 yards (135 on the ground, 123 in the air) to come back and beat the Bulls on the road.

While the Allison and the ground game was tested last week, it will be Nathan Rourke and the passing game that will be tested this week.

To this point, the ‘Cats air attack has failed to get too high off the ground. Rourke has thrown for just 1,012 yards and six touchdowns in the first five games of the year. That ranks the OU 101st in the nation in passing yards per game. 

Despite that being right around Rourke’s career average, the offense has yet to find a consistent stride through the air. Some of that may be due to the senior quarterback having yet to find his go-to receiver. Through five games, no Bobcat pass-catcher has more than 13 receptions. Redshirt-freshman Shane Hooks leads the team with just 193 receiving yards.

The Bobcats offense will need to continue to find balance as it goes through conference play and using a strong ground game to set up the pass seems like the route they are taking.

“That’s kind of what we’re known for. That’s how it’s been for the last couple years with Maleek (Irons) and A.J. (Ouellette). We were in our element,” Albin said. “Hopefully that was a good jump start for us.”

Not only will Northern Illinois flip the script on what the offense will face on Saturday, but they also will pose a similar test to the defense.

Unlike Buffalo, who boasted the 2nd-ranked ground game in the MAC but had ranked last in passing offense, the Huskies come to Athens with the 10th-ranked run game, but the 4th-ranked passing game in the conference.

“They like to run but they’re talented. They’ve got talented receivers, they can throw,” Solich said.

Northern Illinois quarterback Ross Bowers, a graduate transfer from California-Berkley, has topped 225 passing yards in every game so far in 2019 but has only thrown two touchdowns against FBS opponents. 

However, the Huskies have only found the end zone eight times in five games. Even with Ohio’s struggles on offense, they’ve scratched out 16 touchdowns so far.

Some of that may be due to a tough schedule. NIU made trips to Nebraska, Utah and Vanderbilt this season, all losses.

“They’ve played some really good teams, and last week they played in a driving rainstorm,” Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “All things being equal, I think this is going to be a huge challenge for us.”

Last week, in their first game against MAC competition, they racked up 389 yards of offense but turned the ball over twice in the second half to help spark Ball State’s comeback win. In the game, they outgained the Cardinals by 119 yards, holding them to just 34 passing yards, but committed 12 penalties for 111 yards.

The Bobcats defense certainly showed marked improvement against a solid Buffalo offense, but still has plenty of room to grow. Luckily for them, there’s a very recent precedent that shows they can continue to get better.

Last season, the ‘Cats defense got up to a rough start, allowing teams to generate 490 yards and 33.8 points per game in their first six games, but closed the season with a seven-game stretch where they gave up just 305.3 yards and 16.7 points per game. A full season of games like that would have seen the Bobcats finish the season ranked 12th in the country in total defense and 9th in scoring defense.

While not much better (446 ypg and 27.6 opp. ppg), the Bobcats are beginning to rachet up their defense yet again.

“That’s what we’re working toward. We’re a work in progress,” Collins said. “We improved from Louisiana from Buffalo and we want to see that improvement continue to NIU.”

More improvement for the ‘Cats should give them a path to victory in what should be a winnable Homecoming game.

Kickoff at Peden Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m., following the Homecoming festivities uptown that will begin with the annual Homecoming Parade at 10 a.m.