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Interview with Football Frenemies: Ohio Bobcats

The Bobcats are back in Beaver Stadium for the first time in a decade

NCAA Football: Ohio at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio makes the trip to Beaver Stadium for Saturday’s home opener. The Bobcats are 1-0 and looking to rebound from a challenging 2021 season. Keith Gregorski, a contributor at Hustle Belt, answered some questions ahead of tomorrow’s game.

Tim Albin is starting his second year after taking over from Frank Solich. Many of us had come to associate Ohio football with Coach Solich. How has the transition gone?

Last season was rocky but based on last week’s game the Bobcats are showing signs of being back on track.

Frank Solich announced his retirement about six weeks prior to the 2021 season and Ohio promoted from within, naming offensive coordinator Tim Albin as HC and promoting QB coach Scott Isphording to OC. Ohio retained its defensive coaching staff heading into 2021 and so, with most of its coaching staff returning, fans on the whole thought the team would still be bowl eligible.

But that didn’t happen as the Bobcats finished with a 3-9 record, its first losing season since a 4-8 finish in 2008. Perhaps the most surprising thing in 2021 was the offensive struggles because Ohio still had a lot the same offensive coaches but finished 10th in the MAC with an average of about 21 points per contest. 2021 futility sat in stark contrast to the dynamic offenses in the Solich era with Albin as OC, for instance, Ohio finished in the top 20 in FBS scoring from 2017-19 with a high water mark of 40 points per game in 2018.

That being said, the problems in 2021 attributable to the transition or bad luck were hard to distinguish at times. Injuries decimated the interior offensive line early in the year. Also, the secondary and linebackers groups lost several starters and backups. The leading tackler in the last game of the season was a walk-on and former Bobcat equipment manager.

The Bobcats had a busy offseason preparing for 2022, including hiring new defensive coaches to replace the coaches who retired at the end of 2021. Based on the answer to the next question, there are definitely signs that the program is back to playing winning football in 2022.

It looks like it was a wild first week victory over FAU and Kurtis Rourke put on a show. What did you learn about the Bobcats in that opener?

The main takeaways are vast improvements on offense, run defense, and overall explosiveness.

QB Kurtis Rourke returns for his fourht season and really put all the pieces together last week to wring the most of the spread option offense, leading his squad to 41 points. Rourke had all the stats, like 345 yards passing, 79% completions, and five scores but it is the nuances that really stand out. For instance, Rourke ran the option effectively, which led to a late play action score in the passing game. In the red zone, a 2021 sore spot, Rourke repeatedly called a few audibles resulting in touchdowns.

The WR corps is much improved and could turn out to be one of the MAC’s best top to bottom as the top players are very talented and the depth is strong with five players catching at least four passes each last week.

New DC Spence Nowinsky brought a 4-2-5 base defense and made some personnel moves creating an improved defense. Nowinsky reassigned multiple players from the talent-rich LB group to new positions with big early dividends. Former LB Ben Johnson recorded 15 stops in his first start at safety and Jack McCrory made his first start at DE, recording seven tackles and a sack.

The rushing defense was vastly improved, allowing just 100 total yards last week after allowing almost twice that on average last season. The defense also looked much more dynamic. After finishing 2021 near the bottom of the MAC in explosive plays like sacks and turnovers, the ‘Cats recorded 2 sacks, 7 QB pressures, and finished plus 2 in turnovers last week.

One thing Ohio needs to keep owrking on is finishing games. For instance, Ohio amassed a 28-0 third quarter lead last year versus Miami to hold on for a 35-33 win. Last week, the ‘Cats headed into the fourth quarter with a comfortable 34-17 lead only to need a defensive stop on the last series to beat FAU 41-38.

Aside from Rourke, who are players for Penn State fans to watch on both sides of the ball?

Offensively, WRs James Bostic and Sam Wiglusz were big last week. Bostic, a Vanderbilt transfer in 2021, is huge at 6’3”, 230 LBs and had a breakout game last week with 6 catches for 136 yards and a score. Wiglusz, an Ohio State transfer and more of a shifty, speedy type, had five catches and two TDs in his Bobcat debut last week and was a real red zone factor.

Redshirt freshman RB Sieh Bangura may be poised for a breakout year. He racked up 114 yards rushing in his starting debut last week and is powerful and elusive. He is also a threat in the passing game although he wasn’t used that way last week.

Defensively, I’m really looking forward to watching the DEs play this week. The ‘Cats scheme and personnel changes at DE put them in position to wreak havoc. Last week, Jack McCrory and Vonnie Watkins terrorized FAU with a combined 13 stops, 3 QB pressures, and a sack. 2021 third-team All-MAC LB Bryce Houston led the squad with 96 stops last year and has a nose for the ball in short yardage situations. The ‘Cats will also blitz Houston, where he had a few QB pressures last week and a fumble recovery.

It’s been just more than 10 years to the day since Ohio knocked off Penn State in Beaver Stadium to open the 2012 season. What memories do you have of that day and where does that one rank in great Bobcat victories of all time?

For starterss, I remember going into the game thinking Ohio was in about as good a position as they could be given the state of each team. Ohio came into the 2012 season opener against PSU off a great 2011 campaign that was one of their best in decades. Not only did the Bobcats win a MAC East title and their first ever bowl game in 2011, bu they also won ten games in a season for the first time since 1968. PSU came into the game under the circumstances that led to Bill O’Brien being named new head coach for 2012, so the Nittany Lions were still working through that as a football team.

Still, PSU was a Big Ten team coming off a nine-win season in 2011 so I didn’t think going in that Ohio would win but that they could make it interesting.

What I recall about the game is that growing feeling as things on that the Bobcats might really win. Ohio kept it close, going into halftime down 14-3. But throughout the second half, things started to go athe Bobcats way on both sides of the ball. The ‘Cats ground out a few tough scores and the defense started stacking stops, forcing PSU punts. That feeling when Ohio intercepted a late fourth-quarter pass to seal the deal was unforgettable.

All things considered, the win vs. PSU was probably one of the best, if not the best, non-conference wins for the Bobcats in the modern era. PSU was a very talented squad in 2012 and went on to a good record and win over ranked Northwestern, so for Ohio to win against PSU that year was a high-quality win.

Another signature win for Ohio fans was Frank Solich’s first home game as head coach in 2005, a thrilling 16-10 OT win over Pitt.

What are your predictions and keys heading into Saturday’s matchup?

As promising as the Bobcats are this year based on early returns, Ohio has a big uphill battle here as PSU has the best defense Ohio will face all year and the Nittany Lions are something like 28-2 all-time versus the MAC.

To keep it competitive, I think the main thing Ohio needs to do is take PSU’s first punch and settle in without things getting out of control early. The Bobcats had some costly early breakdowns last week on special teams and in pass coverage that need to be fixed to prevent PSU from getting some early explosive players for scores in those areas.

Ohio can help itself by getting into an early groove offensively. Ohio’s offensive coaches and QB Rourke will put the team in position to make some plays and an early score or two will keep things competitive.

One area where Ohio may surprise Penn State is the Bobcats’ defensive front seven. Although PSU has a B1G O-line, the ‘Cats are talented and deep in this area which may help them hold up against PSU’s physicality into the second half. Also, although Penn State will probably run better than last week against Purdue, Ohio’s front seven may be able to prevent PSU’s offense from dominating via the running game.

Finally, the Bobcats’ new scheme and personnel is something PSU will not be very familiar with so Ohio could harass PSU’s QB Clifford at times.

Take Ohio plus 25.5 to cover the spread.

Final score: PSU 41, Ohio 24

That’s it folks, as thorough a breakdown as you’ll get from anyone following Ohio football. Thanks so much to Keith and be sure to check out Hustle Belt for all of the #MACtion.