Nathan Rourke breaks a tackle during the Bobcats’ 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: Rourke Propels ‘Cats to Shootout Win Over Kent State

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ATHENS, OH — All season long, the Bobcats defense has looked for someone to make a play.

For much of the day Saturday, it seemed as if the search would continue for at least another week. But with just over five minutes to play with Ohio leading by seven, the defense got a game-saving (and potentially season-saving) play from their captain.

Javon Hagan sprinted from his position in the middle of the field to make a leaping, touchdown-preventing pass breakup.

“I was following the quarterback’s eyes. I didn’t even know there was a receiver behind me until I got to the sideline,” Hagan said. “In moments like that, I just blackout. It’s one of those things, I’m here for a reason, I have to make a play.”

Javon Hagan gets ready to come out of the tunnel prior to the Bobcats' 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB
Ty Walton pleads with an official during the Bobcats' 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB
Julian Ross and Jerome Buckner celebrate after an Ohio touchdown during the Bobcats' 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB
Jerome Buckner (8) reaches the ball out to cross the goal line during the Bobcats' 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

In a game that was largely devoid of defense, it was the Bobcats (3-4, 2-1 MAC) defense that sealed their 45-38 over Kent State (3-4, 2-1 MAC) and gave Ohio the early leg up in the MAC East race.

While Ohio’s defense may have made the biggest play of the game, the offense deserves a majority of the credit for putting the ‘Cats in a position to win. Not counting a Hail Mary attempt at the end of the first half, the Bobcats were a missed field goal away from scoring on their first six possessions of the game.

“We valued every single drive we had and wanted to get points, especially with the explosive offense that Kent had,” Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke said. “We had to get points out of every drive.”

As would be expected, quarterback Nathan Rourke was the catalyst for the Bobcats’ offensive explosion. The redshirt senior began the game by completing each of his first six passes for 151 yards and two touchdowns, both perfectly placed bombs to Isaiah Cox and Jerome Buckner.

“He had a great day. I’m so proud of that young man. I think he showed his complete talent today,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said of Rourke. “His throwing ability, his running ability and being able to, when it looks like he’s down, get another five yards. He was special with that today.”

By the end of the game, Rourke had done something that he had yet to do in his stellar Bobcat career: throw for over 300 yards. In his 31st game at the helm of this offense, he was finally able to cross that milestone, finishing with 342 passing yards and two touchdowns while adding another 79 yards and two scores with his legs.

“I’m not big on individual stats but I wanted that one,” Rourke said.

Rourke also was able to spread the ball around to a multitude of pass-catchers with eight Bobcats tallying at least one catch in the game, but no one with more than four. Isaiah Cox was one of the receivers that finished with four catches and he led the team in yards with 115.

“We’ve got good receivers and getting the ball in their hands is going to be a plus for us,” Solich said. “We thought we would be deep and that played out today.”

Depth also was a factor in the ground game for Ohio. O’Shaan Allison and Julian Ross, who finished the game with 51 and 19 rushing yards respectively, both were unable to return to the game in the second half due to injury.

Into the game came De’Montre Tuggle. The junior came off the bench and carried the ball 18 times in the second half, rushing for 80 yards and two touchdowns. His second score was the score that sealed the game for the ‘Cats with 2:13 to play.

“It’s been our thing all year, next man up. De’Montre did a great job,” Rourke said.

Saturday marks the second game in a row that the Bobcats offense has performed well through all four quarters of a game, with the win over Kent State representing the best day the unit has had overall in 2019. In total, the offense racked up 571 yards (342 through the air and 229 on the ground), their best output since a 646-yard performance in a 52-17 win over Buffalo in November of 2018.

“The last couple of games, absolutely (we’ve become a more consistent offense), but you don’t go to Detroit by playing well in a couple of games,” Rourke said. “We’ve got to go out and show it again against Ball State.”

On the other hand, the Bobcats defense came away from the win with as many questions as they did prior to the game. 

For much of the game, the unit once again struggled to generate pressure on the quarterback, stop the run or get off the field on third down. The Golden Flashes were able to match the high-flying Bobcat offense blow-for-blow for the 30 minutes of the game.

Like Northern Illinois last week, Kent State was able to top their season averages in every offensive category by a significant margin. In their first six games, the Flashes averaged 352 yards per game. They totaled 476 against Ohio.

While the defense continues to give up big games to opposing offenses, and it doesn’t seem to be getting better, they were able to make big plays in key moments to stave off the Kent State offense.

To go along with Hagan’s heroic pass breakup, the defense also generated two sacks and forced Kent State to punt three times in the second half. In the end, that was just enough to get the victory.

“There was improvement on the defensive side,” Solich said. “But we’ve got to see more improvement.”

Despite some of the struggles the Bobcats have endured in the first two months of the season, they walked off the field on Saturday with a share of the MAC East lead and tiebreakers over two contenders in that race, Kent State and Buffalo.

A 3-4 record is certainly not where the team wanted to be, but their goal of playing in Detriot for a MAC Championship in December is still very much within reach.

“It was a big game (today), and all of them are going to be, but MAC East wins are big,” Rourke said. “We’re going to enjoy this one, but we’re going to move on to Ball State because that’s a big one as well.”

The Bobcats will travel to Muncie, Indiana next Saturday to face a Cardinals team that is not only 3-0 in MAC play but coming off of a big 52-14 victory over Toledo.

There are no easy games for the ‘Cats anymore and each game is more important than the last.

Kickoff at Scheumann Stadium is set for 2 p.m.