Bobcats Football
Dylan Conner and Xavior Motley chase down an NIU ballcarrier during the Bobcats 39-36 loss to NIU on October 12, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weigolpolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: Bobcats’ Defensive Collapse Spoils Homecoming

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ATHENS, OH — For the first 30 minutes of the game on Saturday, the Ohio Bobcats looked like the team that many thought they would be before the season started.

Nathan Rourke was sharp, the offense was moving the ball well and finding the end zone and the defense held Northern Illinois to just 138 yards and 3 points.

The Marching 110 and their alumni played at halftime to a stadium full of happy Bobcats, their team up 21-10.

The Marching 110 playing before the 2019 Homecoming game. PHOTO: Hope Roach, WOUB Visuals
Northern Illinois reciever Cole tucker has 8 catches for 118 yards in NIUs come-from-behind win. PHOTO: Hope Roach, WOUB Visuals
Ohio Football Quarterback Nathan Rourke had 4 touchdowns ( 2 passing, 1 rushing, 1 receiving) in Ohio's 39-36 loss. PHOTO: Hope Roach, WOUB Visuals

But there were still 30 minutes to play…

Those final two quarters saw the Bobcats (2-4, 1-1 MAC) defense collapse entirely, allowing the Huskies (2-4, 1-1 MAC) to score on each of their final five possessions on their way to a 39-36 loss to spoil the Homecoming festivities. 

“We didn’t execute well,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said. “Certainly not well enough to win the game.”

In the second half, the Huskies racked up 372 yards on the way to 31 second-half points. Coming into the game, Northern Illinois averaged just 362.4 yards and 17.4 points for an entire game. 

All season long, the Bobcats have struggled in high-pressure situations on the defensive side and that didn’t change on Saturday. Northern Illinois converted seven of their nine third downs in the second half and threw in a fourth-down conversion for good measure.

After Nathan Rourke tied the game at 29 with an eight-yard touchdown toss to Ryan Luehrman with 8:25 to play in the game, the Bobcats defense had two chances to force the Huskies to punt.

NIU converted both a 3rd & 6 and a 3rd & 10 to keep their drive alive and, ultimately, retake the lead with a touchdown.

When Rourke tied the game again four plays later with a beautifully thrown ball to Shane Hooks and a 47-yard touchdown, the Huskies once again drove down the field and were faced with a 3rd & 4 with just over a minute to play. A stop would still have given the Huskies a chance to take the lead, but it would have also given Nathan Rourke a chance to work his magic.

The defense couldn’t hold and Northern Illinois was able to bleed the clock down to three seconds before they lined up to attempt what would be a 37-yard walk-off field goal to win.

“Not stopping the rushing game hurts. That opened up their passing game a bit,” Solich said. “We’re going to look at everything. From how we blitz to how much pressure we’re able to put on.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he added.

“It’s definitely disappointing. Unfortunate,” Ohio safety Javon Hagan said. “Just got to keep going.”

There’s plenty of reason for disappointment outside the defense as well. Because of the collapse, the Bobcats wasted a very good game from Nathan Rourke and the Ohio offense. For much of the game, the ‘Cats went up and down the field on a very good Northern Illinois defense. Rourke was sharp throwing the football, especially in the first half. 

The offense stagnated for a couple of possessions in the third quarter but bounced back in the final frame to keep up with the Huskies.

“It’s deflating that we weren’t able to put them away (in the third quarter). We couldn’t move the ball,” Rourke said. “It’s tough to put your defense in that position when all the momentum is on their side.”

“We got to execute better in the coming out of the locker room,” Ohio offensive lineman Austen Pleasants added regarding the third quarter struggles.

In the third quarter, the ‘Cats were outgained by NIU 178-67 and the Huskies held possession for nearly nine minutes.

Unfortunately for Ohio, the second half woes will likely tarnish what was a very memorable first half.

After Rourke led off the Bobcats scoring for the day with a touchdown run midway through the first quarter, they would march right back down the field on their next possession.

Austen Pleasants (60) celebrates a touchdown during the Bobcats 39-36 loss to NIU on October 12, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weigolpolski/WOUB
Nathan Rourke (12) looks to avoid an NIU defender during the Bobcats 39-36 loss to NIU on October 12, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weigolpolski/WOUB
NIU's Tyrice Richie (3) steps out of Javon Hagan's (7) tackle attempt during the Bobcats' 39-36 loss to NIU on October 12, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weigolpolski/WOUB

Rourke scored again, but this time he was on the receiving end of a pass from D.L. Knock. The play was the exact one they ran the last time Rourke caught a touchdown in November of 2017. The play would later become more widely known as ‘The Philly Special’.

On their next possession, set up by an Illyas Motley interception, the ‘Cats went right back to their bag of tricks, but the trick was one they learned last year the hard way.

In what was a carbon copy of a play NIU ran a year ago against the Bobcats to score a touchdown, Rourke rolled right only to throw a cross-field lateral back to Pleasants who ran into the end zone for the easy Big Man Touchdown.

“I blacked out a little bit,” Pleasants said. “I remember catching the ball and that was about it.”

The offense played well enough to win the game, totaling 438 yards in the game.

Nathan Rourke became the first player in the MAC to throw, rush and catch a touchdown in a single game since Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch did it in 2013. The last Bobcat to accomplish that feat was Boo Jackson in 2010.

To go along with the ‘hat trick’, Rourke had an efficient day throwing the ball. The senior finished 19-of-31 for 258 yards and ran for another 80 yards on 12 carries.

Shane Hooks stepped up on the afternoon as Rourke’s go-to guy, finishing the game with 131 receiving yards and a score on seven receptions. O’Shaan Allison carried the ball 11 times for 79 yards, but despite picking up over seven yards per touch, the redshirt freshman only got four carries in the second half.

“We haven’t been in a game this year where we didn’t walk out feeling that we were the better team,” Rourke said. “That’s what is most frustrating. We know what kind of team we are, we just haven’t been able show it.”

“We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in and continue to stay together,” Solich said. “This is not a football team that will just back away now.”

The Bobcats better start digging fast.

MAC East-leading Kent State pays a visit to Peden Stadium next weekend and the ‘Cats are already facing a must-win scenario.

Kickoff against the Golden Flashes is set for 12 p.m.