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Opponent Preview: Ohio Bobcats

Some people don’t realize it, but Ohio is one of the better football programs in the Buckeye State. Led by a powerful offense and exceptional special teams play, the Bobcats will be a real challenge for anyone they face.

Ohio v Massachusetts Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

If you like MACtion, then you’ve got to be a fan of the Ohio Bobcats. They have been one of the most consistently strong programs in the Mid-American Conference during the last decade or so, making it to bowl games in eight of the last nine years and compiling seasons with at least nine wins three times in that span.

Last year was one of those nine-win campaigns, as Ohio finished the season 9-4 overall thanks to a 41-6 drubbing of UAB in the Bahamas Bowl, which ended a three-game losing streak in bowl games for the Bobcats. Part of their path to continuing their recent success will be playing the Cincinnati Bearcats, which is why we’re interested in the Bobcats beyond a passing curiosity for an in-state rival playing in a different conference.

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

While a kickoff time has not been announced yet, the Bearcats and Bobcats will play at Nippert Stadium on Sept. 22. It will mark the first game against a FBS program at the new Nippert Stadium, as the previous week the Bearcats open the gates for Alabama A&M.

What They Do Well

Ohio’s biggest claim to fame is its offense. The Bobcats ranked 30th in the country in offensive S&P+ in 2017 on the back of a top-10 scoring offense. Much of that offensive power came on the ground, as the Bobcats led the MAC in rushing offense, while ranking 16th in the country. Being able to move the ball on the ground certainly helped them capitalize in the red zone, where they scored roughly 92 percent of the time, tallying a total of 50 red zone touchdowns, which tied for second in the country.

A strong conversion rate was not found just in the red zone. The Bobcats also capitalized on third down quite a bit, losing out on the No. 1 spot in third down conversion percentage to Buffalo by less than half a percentage point. That third down success carried over to the defensive side as well, as Ohio allowed opponents to convert on such situations 29.9 percent of the the time, the lowest mark in the MAC.

Speaking of defense, the Bobcats were not an elite group, but did have success in some areas, particularly in defending against the run, ranking exactly 10th in the country in rush defense while supplementing that with a decent pass rush. The defense brings back talent this year, but top tackler Quentin Poling will be missed.

On the occasions when Ohio couldn’t get a first down or touchdown, it had strong special teams to lean on. They were actually one of the top 15 units in the country based on special teams S&P+. Along with being a solid group when it came to kickoff and punt returns, the Bobcats got some excellent kicking from Louie Zervoz, who made 15-of-18 field goal tries.

The last two areas that Ohio excels in can be reduced down to one when you think about it. The Bobcats just don’t beat themselves, limiting penalties and protecting their quarterback at elevated levels. They were tied for the second-fewest penalties in the MAC last season, while ranking among the top 20 teams in the country in pass protection, allowing only 16 sacks all year.

What They Don’t Do Well

While all that good stuff is, well, good, the Bearcats are going to be more interested in Ohio’s weaknesses and there are some. While Ohio’s defense was serviceable last season (48th in defensive S&P+), it did not do much in terms of creating turnovers. The Bobcats recorded a total of 17 fumbles and interceptions combined while finishing with a turnovers margin of minus 4.

A few more interceptions definitely would have helped Ohio put up better work against the pass. In one of the few areas in which they were truly dreadful, the Bobcats finished last in the MAC and among the bottom 20 teams nationally in pass defense. The defense as a whole may be in for a step back this year after the departure of such key players as Poling, Chad Moore and Bradd Ellis, the latter of which led the team with 18 passes defended. If the defense is more porous, things could turn south quickly because the Bobcats were prone to allowing scores in the red zone, although they did limit foes to field goals nearly 31 percent of the time.

Players to Watch

Nathan Rourke, QB

People love a good dark horse Heisman candidate and Rourke fits the bill. He can do everything at the position, as he threw for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns, rushed for 907 yards and 21 scores and even added 36 yards and a touchdown as a receiver last year. He is the engine that drives the offense.

AJ Ouellette, RB

Rourke isn’t the only dynamic offensive threat, however. Ouellette is a powerful runner who had 1,006 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last year. Backfield partner Dorian Brown is no longer around this season, so Ouellette’s workload could get even larger.

Papi White, WR

White didn’t put up incredible numbers last year but he was Rourke’s favorite wideout and is a dangerous player on special teams as well.

Th offensive line

With guys like Joe Anderson, Hagen Meservy and Joe Lowery, the Bobcats are set up to be a dominant force in the trenches once again.

Javon Hagan, S

Poling led the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks a year ago. Hagan ranked second in tackles and even added seven passes defended and an interception.

Evan Croutch, LB

With Poling gone, there is a major role to fill and Croutch has the skills to do it. He had 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks a year ago, while ranking fourth on the team in stops.

Kylan Nelson, S

Nelson may not have the star potential of some of his teammates, but he had 53 tackles, including three for loss, and eight passes defended in 2017.

Jalen Fox, CB

If the pass defense is going to improve, Fox is going to have to play even better than he did last year. That’s not to say he wasn’t great in 2017, because he was. He had 11 passes defended and two picks and even recorded a sack.

Louie Zervos, K

As mentioned, Zervos is a very talented kicker.

Series History

This will be the first time since 1981 that these two programs have locked horns. The long wait seems more unfair to the objective observer when you consider the fact that both teams have won 23 against the other. (There have also been four ties).

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

If all you want to see is a Cincinnati win, then yes. So yes is the correct answer. However, from a purely objective standpoint, probably not. Ohio did win at least 20 games in back-to-back seasons from 2015-16 to 2016-17, but the Bobcats went just 14-17 last year and haven’t gone dancing since 2011-12.

Prediction Time!

Marcus Freeman and his defense are going to have their hands full in this one. Rourke and Ouellette are incredibly gifted offensive players and Ohio is going to be able to move the ball against the Bearcats. It will be up to the offense to keep pace and, as currently constructed, there isn’t enough firepower on UC’s side to do that. This looks like a loss from a few months out.