Nathan Rourke Bobcats Football
Nathan Rourke (12) runs past a Miami defender for a touchdown during the Bobcats’ 24-21 loss to Miami on November 6, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Weilgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: ‘Cats Face Must-Win on Senior Night Against WMU

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ATHENS, OH — As the end of another football season approaches, one game always tends to stand out among the others. The final home game, or Senior Night, simply just means more.

On a cold Tuesday night in mid-November, the Bobcat Football’s Class of 2020 will have theirs.

“Every time the senior game comes up, you get reminded of your seniors and start to look at what they’ve contributed. I love what these guys have done and what they’ve been about. They are some really, truly special – not just players – but human beings with how they go about things as students, as scholar-athletes and as guys that are going to be really successful out there,” Ohio head coach Frank Solich said.

“You feel good about being able to release those kind of guys out into the real world but yet, you know you’re going to miss them,” he added.

Tuesday night will be the final game in Peden Stadium for the likes of Nathan Rourke, Javon Hagen, Eric Popp, Louis Zervos and many others. Not only that, but the game is an absolute must-win for the Bobcats.

Ohio (4-5, 3-2 MAC) needs to win their final three games and get some help to go to Detroit for the MAC Championship game. That journey starts against the MAC West-leading Western Michigan Broncos (6-4, 4-2 MAC).

“When you have a short week, it’s never easy. You do some things to help yourself, out but it’s not what you look for, and it’s not what you want. You never want to have a team have extra days of an advantage on you, but in saying that, you just have to rise to the occasion,” Solich said. “We’ve been through it before, and it’s difficult.”

After last week’s crushing loss to Miami, the Bobcats had just five full days between games. Conversely, the Broncos last played on November 5, giving them nearly two full days more rest and preparation time.

The lack of prep time will certainly make it tough on the Bobcats defense on Tuesday night, as Western Michigan brings the top-ranked offense in the conference, and 24th in the country, to Athens.

The Broncos are most dangerous on the ground, averaging over 220 rushing yards per game, good for the 18th best rushing attack in the country. Senior running back Levante Bellamy leads the charge, coming into the game as the 5th-leading rusher in all of college football with 1,212 yards.

“He’s got the skill that a great running back needs to have. He’s got tremendous quickness, explosiveness, able to make people miss, and then he’s got the speed after making people miss to not get run down,” Solich said of Bellamy. “When you have that combination of things, generally you’re going to put points on the board.”

A Bobcat defense that has given up an average of 196.6 yards per game will be tasked with stopping Bellamy, but they are coming off of their best performance of the season last week when they allowed the RedHawks to rush for just 129 yards.

The Broncos boast a solid passing attack as well, led by senior quarterback Jon Wassnik. He ranks 25th in the country with 2,397 yards through the air while ranking 36th in the nation in passing touchdowns with 16.

Ohio’s defense may need to do something they haven’t done very well all year to slow down the Bronco offense: cause turnovers.

In 2019, the ‘Cats have generated just six takeaways. Last season, they led the nation with 31.

“It’s one of the most frustrating things for me this season and for the coaches and team. Turnovers are maybe the one statistic that gives you your best chance if you need a winning edge in something, you take it in turnovers,” Solich said.

“That’s in the past right now, and the only thing we can do is look ahead and take care of the ball. We need some pressure. We need people smacking the ball with their shoulder pad, helmet, or hand. We need to win some of those 50-50 downfield throws with an interception. It’s just we haven’t had our fair share of them yet,” Solich added. “Maybe they’re all going to come here in this stretch.”

The Bobcats offense will likely have to continue firing on all cylinders to give the team a chance to win on Tuesday night. In the five games they’ve played against MAC opponents, they have averaged 434.2 yards per game on offense. Against Ball State and Miami in the last two weeks, the Bobcats ground attack has run for 557 yards and scored six of the team’s seven touchdowns.

They face a Western Michigan defense that ranks 92nd in the country at stopping the run, giving up over 185 yards a game on the ground. They are only slightly better at stopping the pass, coming in ranked 88th in the country there.

But Coach Solich knows that they will still pose a challenge for Rourke and the Bobcats.

“They’re experienced and are good across the board defensively. Their sacks are coming off of just beating people one-on-one to some degree, but they do a lot of blitzing. They do a lot of movement, and if you’re not ready for that, you’re going to get caught,” Solich said. “Even if you are ready it, they’re going to apply pressure – that’s the name of the game for them.”

The Broncos have registered 32 sacks on the year, the 10th highest sack total in the country and double the amount the Bobcats have recorded.

However, if the ‘Cats are able to keep Rourke clean, he has a chance to become the first Bobcat to ever score 100 touchdowns in a career on his senior night. He enters Tuesday night’s game with 99.

But in the end, it’s not the stats that will matter. It’s whether or not the Bobcats are ahead on the scoreboard when the clock hits 0:00.

“We set out to win every game, and as you go through the season, your goals are met or they’re not met at a certain point in time. We’re still in the race, but you need a ton of help and then we have to finish it off,” Solich said. “We’ve got three left, and that’s what we want to get done, and that’s what we’ll aim all of our energy towards.”

The first of those three comes on Tuesday night.

Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m.