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[Bryce Tinson | WOUB]

Bobcats take step toward MAC East title with road victory, but potentially a big step back with loss of quarterback Kurtis Rourke

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MUNCIE, Ind. (WOUB) – A 32-18 victory for Ohio football (8-3) over the Ball State Cardinals (5-6) and a Bowling Green win sets up a win or go home final game for the Bobcats.

The snowy weather rolled into Muncie for Ohio’s last road game of the season, and early on the red hot Bobcats were off to a cold start. 

Ball State took possession after a three-and-out and were the first to put points on the board. 

On two separate third downs, the Cardinals were bailed out with Bobcat penalties to extend the drive into Ohio territory. They would rumble all the way to the Bobcats’ five yard line but Ohio’s defense stood tall to force a field goal, 3-0 Ball State. 

That score held for the remainder of the quarter and marked the first time the Bobcats have been held scoreless in the first quarter since Week Five against Kent State. 

Quarterback Kurtis Rourke (7) launches one down the field against the Ball State Cardinals
Quarterback Kurtis Rourke (7) launches one down the field against the Ball State Cardinals [Conor Mallonn | WOUB]
Ohio responded in a big way in the second quarter.

The Bobcats opened up the next 15 minutes with a long drive capped off by a six yard Sieh Bangura touchdown run to give Ohio a 7-3 lead. In total, the drive took 15 plays and about eight and a half minutes. 

On the ensuing Cardinal drive, redshirt freshman Torrie Cox Jr. continued his impressive debut season with a forced fumble and recovery on a hard hit in the flat. 

The Bobcats kept up the momentum on offense with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Kurtis Rourke to Sam Wiglusz. It’s the ninth time the two have connected for an Ohio touchdown this season as the Bobcats stretch their lead, 14-3 with just over eight minutes left in the second quarter. 

Another Ball State three-and-out and Ohio took possession rolling on both sides of the ball. Rourke found his second option Jacoby Jones for a 45-yard bomb to put the Bobcats in the red zone with an opportunity to stretch the lead to 18 points. The drive stalled at the seven yard line and Ohio was forced to settle for a 24-yard field goal 17-3 Bobcats.

Ohio cornerback Zach Sanders (19) deflects a Ball State pass
Ohio cornerback Zach Sanders (19) deflects a Ball State pass [Conor Mallonn | WOUB]
The barrage from the Bobcats wouldn’t stop before halftime. Corner Justin Birchette ripped the ball out of the hands of Cardinal running back Carson Steele to give Ohio another shot at six. Steele came into the contest as one of the top backs in the MAC with 1,280 yards on the ground, fourth in the FBS going into the game, and zero fumbles. But before the half he had two balls lost to the Bobcats.

It looked like smooth sailing for Ohio until disaster struck with 22 seconds left in the first half. 

On a boot roll out, Rourke hit the turf yelling in pain and favoring his right knee. Trainers rushed to the field and helped the redshirt junior to the locker room. On the very next play, backup quarterback CJ Harris and Bangura have trouble on the exchange and fumble at the Cardinal 15 yard line. 

Ball State ran out of time on its attempt to get points before the half, and the Bobcats took a 17-3 lead into the break. 

The third quarter stalled for the Bobcats offense without their star quarterback but the defense picked up some of the slack. 

After a punt pinned the Cardinals at their own one yard line, defensive tackle Rodney Matthews stuffed Ball State in its own end zone to force a safety and extend the Bobcats lead 19-3.

That score held for nearly eight minutes until a late Ball State touchdown made things interesting going into the last 15 minutes. The Cardinals converted a two-point conversion to make it a one score ballgame, 19-11 Bobcats. 

Ohio added insurance on its first drive in the fourth with another Bangura touchdown to push it to a two score ballgame once again. Bangura finished the contest with a career high 148 rushing yards, Albin says his performance came at a great time.

Ohio running back Sieh Bangura (22) rushes past the Ball State defense
Ohio running back Sieh Bangura (22) rushes past the Ball State defense [Conor Mallonn | WOUB]
“This is the best he’s felt since we kicked off against FAU,” Albin said. “We felt like he was going to have a good night and it couldn’t come at a bigger stage for where we were offensively.”

That 26-11 lead would only hold for about four minutes before the Cardinals threw another counter with 10 minutes left in the game, 26-18 Bobcats.

The late game drama was put to bed with a 37-yard field goal from freshman Nathanial Vakos to make it a 29-18 ballgame with under three minutes to play.

An Alvin Floyd interception on the other end squashed any hope of a Cardinal comeback and the Bobcats sneak away with their sixth victory in a row.

The Bobcats have been playing with confidence on that side of the ball for four weeks. Defensive lineman Kai Caesar says the unit has been playing together.

“Coach Nowinsky, let us know all the time,” Caesar said. “It works together in the front end and the back end so as long as you know, the back end guys are covering well then the front guys can go get a sack or whatever. Vice versa. So just understanding what we need to do as a defense as a whole. That’s one and just executing.”

With the win and a Bowling Green victory over the Toledo Rockets, the Bobcats now face the Falcons for a spot in the MAC championship game. 

“If you asked me before FAU how do you want this thing to go down that would be the storyline,” Albin said. “And so you’re going to get a football staff that’s going to come to work. … And we’re going to attack this game and get a game plan put together and give our best effort.”

It would be Ohio’s first championship appearance since 2016 but it first has to take care of business Nov. 22 at Peden Stadium.