Nathan Rourke Bobcats Football
Nathan Rourke runs towards the end zone during the Bobcats 45-38 win over Kent State on October 19, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: Bobcats Face Huge Test at Ball State

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ATHENS, OH — When the schedule was revealed back in February, there were a few games that were circled as big games on the Bobcats’ schedule. A trip to Muncie, Indiana to face Ball State in late October was not one of those games. 

However now this game could be the one that makes or breaks Ohio’s season.

In a matchup between the division leaders in the Mid-American Conference, the Bobcats (3-4, 2-1 MAC) travel to face the Cardinals (4-3, 3-0 MAC) in a pivotal game for both teams.

Prior to the season, Ball State was picked to finish fifth in the MAC West, but it’s taken just three conference games to change the minds of the voters. With comeback wins over Northern Illinois and a blowout victory last week over pre-season MAC West-favorite Toledo, it’s easy to see why.

“(Ball State) is a complete football team. I talk about us wanting to be good in all three units, I see them as being good in all three units. Defensively, they’re hard to move the ball against,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said. “We’re going to have to be really hitting on all cylinders and be good at trying to get some runs going and lead into some throws. I don’t think we can be one dimensional against them.”

Good news for the Bobcats? They haven’t been close to one-dimensional on offense in their last couple of games. In their games against Northern Illinois and Kent State, the ‘Cats have rushed for 407 yards at a clip of 5.1 yards per carry and passed for 602 yards at a rate of 15.4 yards per completion. 

“We challenged (the offense) all week to take another step. I told them on Monday that they played pretty darn well,” Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin said. “Up to this point, it was our best game of the year and we got to build on it.”

Nathan Rourke, the reigning MAC East Offensive Player of the Week, is a big part of the offensive resurgence of late. The senior quarterback has thrown for 755 yards and four touchdowns and added another 222 yards and four scores on the ground in the first three conference games of 2019. Add in the touchdown catch against NIU and he has accounted for nine touchdowns in three games.

Perhaps most impressive though is his efficiency. Rourke has completed 64 percent of his passes and turned the ball over just twice in three games (one interception, one fumble) all while averaging 26 dropbacks and 14 rushes per game.

The Cardinals, however, may provide his biggest test to date.

“They are very multiple in the back end (with their coverages). Pick a coverage and they do it,” Albin said. “Nathan will have to play well between the ears.”

Luckily for Rourke, the decisions he makes on game day have become easier as the season has gone on due to the sheer number of skill players he has at his disposal to distribute the ball to. The depth that the coaching staff touted in the preseason has been on full display in the early going of MAC play.

O’Shaan Allison and De’Montre Tuggle have handled the running back duties well when called upon with both backs averaging north of four yards per carry. In the passing game, the targets have been evenly distributed amongst all the pass catchers with each of the top five receivers registering between six and 10 catches in the three conference games.

“I’m awful proud of all the guys. A lot of people have played through the course of the season but we have to keep taking steps. Every game is going to come down to making plays on one or two possessions,” Albin said. “I think we’re finding our stride.” 

As long as this offense is led by Nathan Rourke, the Bobcats are likely going to put up points in bunches, but the theme of this season at the midway point has been whether or not the defense will be able to stop the opponent enough to win games.

Last week, they were able to stop Kent State just enough to get the victory.

“Maybe we can get this ball rolling a bit. Not only do we want to make those late-game plays, we want to make those all the way throughout,” Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “The last three weeks, we’ve had really good practices. That’s going to translate to these games.”

Obviously, the Bobcats hope that the good practices translate to good games sooner rather than later because Saturday they face the top-ranked offense in the MAC. 

The Cardinals boast both the top offense in terms of yards (454.4 ypg) and points (34.7 ppg) and they do it with a balanced attack.

“They’re a complete offense. They’ll cause you a lot of problems because of their speed, a lot of motion, and a lot of things that lends itself to creating some big plays,” Solich said.

Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt ranks 21st in the country in passing yards, totaling 1,868 in his first seven games. Overall, the Cardinals passing attack ranks 39th in the country at 267 yards per game. 

Plitt is the best quarterback the Bobcats have faced in conference play so far, and to this point, two of the three quarterbacks the Bobcats have faced have had their best day of the season against them.

“They’re unbelievable, how much they’ve improved since last year. They’re efficient and their quarterback is efficient,” Collins said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”

Currently, the Bobcats’ defense ranks 9th in the MAC and that ranking has dropped each week since the beginning of conference play as they continue to allow opponents to put up huge numbers on them.

But the defense was the unit that ultimately won the game for the ‘Cats against Kent with a couple of big plays late. Ohio is hoping that is something they can build on.

“You know that there are going to be some critical plays that just have to be made in the ballgame, and there were three or four or five that were made. We had some athletes that just stepped up and made those plays,” Solich said. “If you don’t make those plays, you’re fighting from behind, you’ve got some trouble. The fact that they made those plays was huge for us.”

Not many thought that the Bobcats’ season would come down to a game in Ball State on what will likely be a cold and rainy Saturday afternoon in Indiana, but here we are.

Both teams come into the game in “prove it” mode: Ohio with a chance to prove that they’re still the team to beat and Ball State with a chance to prove they’re for real.

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