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Five Things Learned: Ohio 59, Western Michigan 14

Bobcats meant business when traveling to the Broncos’ den.

Ohio v Cincinnati Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Western Michigan benefitted from an easy schedule

Yes, the team’s starting quarterback has only played one drive in the last two games, both blowout losses. And yes, Jon Wassink probably won’t take another snap this season as he’s undergoing right foot surgery. But Western Michigan has been completely exposed, primarily on defense and special teams, in meetings against two of the MAC’s top offenses.

It seemed like Western Michigan was finally constructing a solid program in year two of Tim Lester era. The Broncos started the season on a low note, dropping back-to-back games against Syracuse and Michigan (both teams are now ranked), but the team rattled off six-consecutive wins to attain quick bowl eligibility. Those six wins skewed the perception of the state of Western Michigan’s program. That streak included:

  • Delaware State (FCS, 1-7), 68-0
  • @ Georgia State (Sun Belt, 2-6), 34-15
  • @ Miami-OH (MAC, 3-6), 40-39
  • Eastern Michigan (MAC, 4-5), 27-24
  • @ Bowling Green (MAC, 1-8), 42-35
  • @ Central Michigan (MAC, 1-8), 35-10

None of the Broncos’ six wins own a winning record, and Eastern Michigan stands as the strongest team in that stretch. Western Michigan downed its two toughest opponents, Eastern Michigan and Miami, by a combined four points. The Broncos struggled with a Bowling Green program that was in the middle of firing its head coach, forced to claw back from a 14-point deficit.

Don’t discredit Western Michigan for these wins though. The Broncos beat the teams they should have. But as soon as the schedule amplified, it got ugly real quick, and they’re 0-4 against teams .500 or better.

Nathan Rourke’s passing game has developed

Going into the year, Nathan Rourke seemed poised to make a run at First Team All-MAC as the quarterback. While the mobile quarterback isn’t quite on pace for the 21 rushing touchdowns he earned last season, he’s definitely exhibited strides as a passer.

The junior has spiked his completion percentage from 55% to 63% in his second season as the Bobcats’ starter. With 17 touchdown passes, he already has tied his mark from a year ago with four regular season games left to go, a bowl game, and a potential MAC Championship appearance.

On Thursday night, most of Rourke’s throws landed perfectly into the pockets of Ohio receivers. It looked like he was playing NCAA 14 on Freshman mode, completing 12-of-14 passes, including three touchdowns, before checking out of the game at halftime due to a 45-0 score.

Darius Phillips needs more eligibility

Western Michigan’s kickoff return game has fallen to a sad state.

The unit hit a new low during the tail end of the first half, muffing consecutive kickoffs to allow Ohio three-straight possessions. Those three possessions iced the game, providing Ohio 17 easy points to send the Western Michigan fan base packing out of Waldo Stadium at halftime.

The rainy conditions definitely affected Western Michigan’s ability to field kickoffs, but there was some reprehensibly bad communication during those kick returns, especially the latter of the two. Even when the Broncos return kicks, they’re one of worst in the country.

Western Michigan ranks 124th in the FBS with an average kick return of 15.8 yards. That consistently starts the team in poor field position rather than just taking touchbacks. Due to the Broncos’ struggling defense which has allowed 49 or more points in four contests this season, returning kicks is a frequent occurrence for this team.

Either the Broncos need to take more touchbacks or practice better returning/blocking strategies on these plays, or just find a way to bring Darius Phillips back into the program. Phillips, now with the Cincinnati Bengals, brought Western Michigan’s return game to new heights. The former cornerback and FBS leader for non-offensive touchdowns in a college career brought five kickoffs to the house when suiting up in brown and gold.

Ohio’s defense is a transformed unit

There were plenty of concerns in Athens, Ohio on September 1. The Bobcats allowed 32 points to Howard, an FCS program. The defense was required to make a stand on the Bison’s final possession in order to stave off the upset-hungry visitor.

The concerns only augmented when the Bobcats yielded 45 points to Virginia, 34 to Cincinnati, and 42 to a UMass program that has failed to put a respectable product on the field since joining the FBS.

Fast-forward to November, and Ohio is in the midst of a three-game streak of holding opponents to 14 points. The first two teams on the streak were Bowling Green and Ball State. Although the Falcons and Cardinals are much closer to the basement of the conference than the apex, both of those teams have demonstrated quality offense at times this season. But holding Western Michigan to 14 points on the road is this team’s biggest defensive accomplishment this season.

The Bobcats forced six turnovers, recovering four fumbles and intercepting two passes. In three-straight wins, Ohio is annihilating the competition in the turnover battle, forcing 11 turnovers during the streak. It’s clear that this defense is not the same unit that struggled containing Virginia back in Nashville.

One of these teams is a MAC title contender

Heading into the game, it seemed like these were arguably the second-best teams in their respective divisions. But the separation was so clear, and Western Michigan’s conference title hopes shriveled up like a cell in a hypertonic solution. The Broncos are alive, and will need help, but the team still has a matchup against the MAC West’s perfect 5-0 Northern Illinois Huskies. It’s a long shot, and the team hasn’t shown up against quality competition.

Meanwhile, Ohio seemed to fit the role of the conference’s greatest disappointment just several weeks ago. The Bobcats were 3-3 and a fourth quarter comeback away from losing to Kent State and facing an uphill battle with a 2-4 record. Now, Ohio controls its own destiny and is fortunate to host the 8-1 Buffalo Bulls in two weeks.

Offensively, Ohio is dominant. The Bobcats only needed 30 minutes of action to impose 45 points on Western Michigan. Rourke is at the peak of his career as a passer and is tearing apart opposing defenses on speed options and scrambles out of the pocket. Defensively, Ohio is improved. On the sidelines, the green and white have a major advantaged with seasoned veteran Frank Solich. With the way Ohio’s playing at the moment, that battle with Buffalo on November 14 is setting up to be the MAC’s most significant game of the regular season.