[Maria Monesi | WOUB]

Ohio grounds Bowling Green 38-14 to advance to the MAC Championship

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — How much can things really change in one year? Well, a year ago, the Ohio Bobcats were standing around midfield at Doyt L. Perry Stadium in Bowling Green vowing that the 3-9 season they just had was never going to happen again. 362 days later, the Ohio Bobcats flipped those two numbers around and finished off a 9-3 regular season with a 38-14 victory over Bowling Green and clinching a MAC East Title.  

Before the game, it was announced that Ohio starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke would not be available for the game, meaning that backup C.J. Harris was going to be making his first career start.  

Ohio quarterback CJ Harris (10) leaps into the end zone against the Bowling Green Falcons
Ohio quarterback CJ Harris (10) leaps into the end zone against the Bowling Green Falcons [Maria Monesi | WOUB]
With the performance he gave, the general public must’ve thought he’d been a starter for three years. The hype, the lights, the stage, none of that seemed to phase Harris as he gave arguably one of the best performances from a backup quarterback in recent memory. 

“It was my first collegiate start so there was a little bit of nerves,” Harris said. “But the team had my back, my teammates, my coaches like everybody had trust in me. I knew they were going to have my back, so I was going to have theirs.” 

Since the Bobcats ran the ball 54 times, Harris didn’t have to throw that much. When he did, they were mostly wide receiver screens to make him more comfortable in certain situations. When those bubble screens clicked, they went for huge chunks of yardage.  

He struck gold with receiver Jacoby Jones on multiple wide receiver screens, with the longest going for 48 yards in the second quarter. Harris finished 10-21 for 196 yards and one touchdown. The one score came on a 20-yard roll out touchdown pass to Sam Wiglusz in a 28-point second quarter.  

Harris was able to build chemistry with his top receivers during the week of practice. 

“During practice all week, we stayed afterwards and got some extra reps,” Harris said. “Just to make sure we were good since I hadn’t been in that spotlight or anything like that. What you practice translates to the game.” 

Jones led all receivers with 96 yards on four catches. The crazy part? He had 86 yards after the catch, meaning all four times he got a wide receiver screen, it was going for a healthy gain in the positive net gain category.  

I got (speed) options 

Where Harris shined the most was in the run game. Harris showcased his skill running the ball last week against Ball State with a couple of big runs. Tuesday night, there was one play in particular that Harris ran to near perfection the entire night: the speed option.  

“After tonight it almost has to be,” Harris said. “It most definitely is one of my favorite plays. I’m just happy the coaches called, I’m happy all the other 10 players on offense did their job and obviously I understand I did mine.” 

Harris executed the speed option to perfection nearly every time that play was called. Harris carried the ball 12 times and scored three touchdowns. Every fourth carry that Harris had ended up in the endzone. His 12 carries equated for 65 yards.  

Running back Sieh Bangura rushed a season high 27 times and while he wasn’t as effective as games past, still ended the game with 96 yards and a touchdown. Oh, and the touchdown was on a speed option in which Harris pitched it to a wide-open Bangura who stepped into the endzone.  

Defense wins (MAC East) Championships  

With a backup quarterback playing in a game that decided if they went to the MAC Championship or not, the pressure was on the defense to deliver. 

Simply put, they did. Ohio forced three turnovers in the second quarter alone. Two of them were back-to-back late interceptions by safety Tariq Drake, the preseason second-team All-MAC member. 

“I’m always thinking to get one more,” Drake said. “You want to keep making play. No matter how much time is on the clock, you want to keep making plays.” 

Drake, as head coach Tim Albin, puts it, is the quarterback of the defense. 

“He’s the ringleader back there,” Albin said. “He gets all the calls, he’s the quarterback of the secondary and everything goes through him.”

Ohio defenders tackle Bowling Green's running back
Ohio defenders tackle Bowling Green’s running back [Maria Monesi | WOUB]
The first of the quarter came on a fourth-down attempt by the Falcons. Zack Sanders stepped in front of the BG receiver and came up with the INT. Forcing three turnovers was a huge reason why the Bobcats were able to put up a season high 28 points in the second quarter.  

“Our coaches put us in a great position to make plays,” Drake said. “When you get the opportunity to make them, you got to make them.” 

A reason the Bobcats defense was able to hold the Falcons high powered passing attack to just 14 points begins with their pass rush. The pass rush is something that has continued to get better as the season has gone on and that was on full display.  

Ohio got after BG quarterback Matt McDonald, sacking him three times. Two of those came from the Bobcats stout linebacker duo of Keye Thompson and Bryce Houston. Thompson led all players with 11 tackles. Kai Caesar recorded the other sack. 

Ohio was also able to neutralize the Falcons on the ground, holding the Falcons to a season low 50 rushing yards on just 21 carries and 8.5 tackles for loss.  

Rourke in the road  

Even though they won, the Bobcats did get one unfortunate bit of news. That being the announcement that Ohio’s starting quarterback Kurtis Rourke is out the rest of the season with a knee injury. He sustained the injury during the second quarter of Ohio’s 32-18 victory over Ball State on November 15.  

“We don’t get to this spot, without what better be the MAC Player of the Year (Kurtis Rourke),” Albin said. “He’s a huge part to our team and a leader.” 

In his four years with the Bobcats, this is the third time that Rourke has sustained an injury that ended his season. His freshman year in 2019, his ended before the final game when it was announced he would have season ending shoulder surgery. He went out with an injury during the covid-shortened 2020 season against Bowling Green, which turned out to be their final game of the year due to a Covid-outbreak ending their season.  

Ohio will stick with Harris as their starting quarterback for the remainder of the season. 

3-9 to 9-3 

Just one year ago, the Ohio Bobcats stood at the center of Doyt L. Perry stadium. Tears were on their faces as they fell to Bowling Green 21-10 and brought an end to what was one of the worst seasons Ohio had since the pre-Frank Solich era. It is something that left a sour taste in the mouth of many players like Kai Caesar. 

“When we got back in January, coach Albin said to us, we’re on to something better, something new. You find leadership in different ways,” Caesar said. “We said to ourselves, that 3-9 season, we don’t want that anymore. We’re better than that.”

Head coach Tim Albin stands on the field after claiming the MAC East title
Head coach Tim Albin stands on the field after claiming the MAC East title [Maria Monesi | WOUB]
Three days after the game ended, Albin called the team for a meeting, which is where he and everyone says the foundations for this season were set. 

“I truly believe it started the Monday after the BG loss last year,” Albin said. “I said meet in this room at 2 p.m. If you’re in this room? Great. You’re in. If you weren’t, we’re burning the ships. If you’re not sure, then don’t show up because we’re going to start today.” 

A year later, the Bobcats gathered around midfield at Frank Solich Field at Peden Stadium, with tears in their eyes. However, tears of joy as they completed their turn around which began three days after their season ending loss to Bowling Green. Now, they have a chance to end the 54-year MAC Championship drought on Dec 3 at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Standing in their way: the Toledo Rockets.