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2018 Frisco Bowl Preview: Ohio Bobcats vs. San Diego State Aztecs

Rourke and the Bobcats’ rushing attack aim to win second-straight bowl game in the suburbs of Dallas.

NCAA Football: Ohio at Cincinnati David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Consistency and stability are suitable terms to define the two programs which will converge in the Dallas metroplex area this week.

This Wednesday night at Toyota Stadium — a soccer stadium which seats 20,500 — college football’s newest bowl game will transpire for the second-straight postseason. North Texas is not quite either team’s familiar territory, as the Ohio Bobcats’ campus lies about 1,080 miles from the town and the San Diego State Aztecs’ home base is 1,375 miles away.

However, postseason football is absolutely familiar territory for these postseason mainstays. Ohio is set to compete in its fifth-straight bowl game under Frank Solich. The Bobcats have attained bowl eligibility in 10-straight seasons, dating back to 2009. During that span, Ohio has shipped three bowl trophies back to Athens — the first three bowl victories in program history.

Rocky Long has achieved similar feats with the Aztecs. San Diego State is nearing the close of its ninth-consecutive winning season, earning bowl bids every year since 2010. Long has been on staff during all of these years and has fulfilled head coaching duties since 2011. During this run of success, San Diego State won its first three bowl games since 1969.

It’s rare to find two Group of Five programs develop that consistency over time, especially with stability at the head coach position. Solich and Long have devoted a combined 22 years of service to their programs, and have each become the winningest coach in school history (Solich 105-75 and Long 71-34).

While the Bobcats and Aztecs both missed out on conference championships this year, the programs still exhibited flashes of greatness in their 2018.

Pegged as preseason favorites for its first conference title since 1968, Ohio stumbled into 2018 with a lackluster 3-3 start. At the midway point, the team’s inexperienced defense began to develop and the rushing attack added explosiveness. In their last six competitions, the Bobcats finished 5-1 with an average point differential of +28.67. Ohio is one of six teams to average more than six yards per rushing attempt and rank eighth in the nation in rushing yards per game (fourth among non-triple option schools). Solich’s squad is 10th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging a MAC-best 41.2 points throughout 2018.

San Diego State can be described in the exact opposite manner. Losing star running back Rashaad Penny, the Aztecs’ preseason expectations slightly dropped, but the perennial Mountain West contender began the season 6-1 with wins over then-No. 23 Arizona State and Boise State on the blue turf. Rather than building a reputation on offense, San Diego State’s specialty was its defense. The maximum points the Aztecs allowed all year was 31, and only two teams broke the 30-point barrier on San Diego State’s defense — one of four units in the nation allowing under 100 rushing yards per outing.

But the end of the season wasn’t a mirror image of the first half. San Diego State entered an unusual slump, dropping four of its last five including three in a row to end the regular season. While a loss at Fresno State is forgivable, the Aztecs lost as 24-point home favorites to UNLV and 17.5-point home favorites to Hawaii during the nightmare stretch. In order to salvage the season, San Diego State longs for a victory in Frisco late Wednesday night.

When Ohio has the ball:

One of the most talented dual threat quarterbacks in the nation will be engineering Ohio’s high-powered offense in Frisco. Canadian junior quarterback Nathan Rourke is one of the most elusive runners in the nation and his passing mechanics have greatly improved since his breakout sophomore campaign. Rourke combined to throw and run for 35 touchdowns this season, earning 2,225 yards through the air and 816 on the ground. He has the speed option down to the science and has a knack for extending plays by scrambling around the pocket.

To assist Rourke in the rushing game is longtime halfback A.J. Ouellette. Ouellette’s been the feature back for Ohio since 2014, but he’s enjoying his best season yet in his last year in Athens. The 209-pound power back combined for 533 rushing yards and four touchdowns in his final three regular season contests, making Ohio’s ground game more lethal than ever. He has talented linemen paving his way including First Team All-MAC selections Joe Anderson (at left guard) and Joe Lowery (at left tackle).

Ohio also employs a dangerous threat in the receiving corps, senior Papi White. The 5’9” receiver put up career-highs across the board in receiving statistics despite the Bobcats frequently utilizing the run game. When suited up, White is always in the conversation for the fastest player on the field, averaging 16.1 yards per catch across his career. He is joined by Rourke’s secondary targets Andrew Meyer and Cameron Odom in the receiving corps.

While Ohio’s playing its strong hand on offense, San Diego State has its best cards out too. The Aztec defense hasn’t been friendly to opposing offenses this year, notably holding Boise State to 13 points, Arizona State to 21, and Fresno State to 23. The Aztecs allow just 94.5 rushing yards per game, perfectly countering Ohio’s offensive rushing average of 262.2. San Diego State’s pass defense can best be described as middle-of-the-road, as the Aztecs only accumulated nine interceptions this season while allowing 17 touchdown passes.

Points are hard to come by on Rocky Long’s wall of a defense, and the Aztecs have no problem winning a game by scoring less than 30. Six of San Diego State’s wins involved 28 points or fewer.

When San Diego State has the ball:

Senior quarterback Christian Chapman has become a seasoned veteran in Southern California, but a left MCL sprain interrupted a good portion of his final year as an Aztec. Chapman returned for the final four games of the regular season and will likely start the Frisco Bowl over Ryan Agnew, the backup who saw substantial action in 11 games this year.

San Diego State’s unprecedented line of running backs hasn’t quite come to a halt yet. After trotting out all-time FBS leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey and following him up with 2017 Heisman candidate Rashaad Penny, junior halfback Juwan Washington qualifies as the next man up. Similar to Chapman, an injury wiped away the middle portion of Washington’s season, but Texas native saw success when available. He averaged over 100 yards per game on the ground, rushing for over 130 in half of his eight performances.

But due to his midseason absence, San Diego State is 73rd in rushing yards per game, a far cry from the team that was 10th in 2017 and 7th in 2016. He is assisted by sophomore Chase Jasmin in the rushing game, who should see a handful of carries Wednesday night.

The Aztecs’ passing game is serviceable but nothing spectacular. San Diego State is 99th overall in passing offense, and the 53.8% completion percentage lies within the FBS’s bottom quartile. Although Chapman and Agnew have prevented a slew of interceptions, San Diego State carries a turnover margin of (-3) into the bowl game.

Creating turnovers is something Ohio’s defense excels at, and the Bobcats check in at fifth in the nation in turnover margin. Ohio is tied with Syracuse for an FBS-high 30 turnovers forced, and the Bobcats can thank key defenders like strong safety Javon Hagan and outside linebacker Evan Croutch for boosting those numbers. Despite returning a chunk of the secondary, Ohio’s passing defense has mightily struggled this year, but the rushing defense is just a few steps behind its opponent’s at 35th in the country.

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Wednesday, December 19 — 8:00 p.m. ET
  • Venue: Toyota Stadium — Frisco, TX
  • Network: ESPN
  • Spread: Ohio (-2.5)
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Ohio has 64.8% chance to win
  • All-time series: No previous matchups
  • Fun facts:
  1. This is the second-ever Frisco Bowl. The event replaced the defunct Miami Beach Bowl when the ownership of the game was sold to ESPN. Louisiana Tech demolished SMU, 51-10, in last December’s event. Thus, this marks the first time the MAC and Mountain West have earned bids to Frisco.
  2. Papi White is Ohio’s all-time leading receiver in yards. He needs two touchdowns to tie Donte Foster (2010-13) for the program’s touchdown receptions leader with 21.
  3. Ohio is the only MAC team to have won its most recent bowl game, defeating UAB 41-6 in the 2017 Bahamas Bowl. A win over San Diego State would give Solich’s Bobcats back-to-back bowl wins and consecutive 9-win seasons for the first time since 2011-12.
  4. San Diego State has not lost four-straight games in a single season since dropping its last four in 2009. The head coach was Brady Hoke, fresh off an undefeated regular season at Ball State. That streak could potentially end if the Aztecs fail to win Wednesday night.

Prediction

Ohio’s offense averages over 40 points per game. Meanwhile, San Diego State’s offense hasn’t even scored as much as 32. The Aztecs are in the midst of a baffling slump, and the team hasn’t looked like themselves since that stunning loss to UNLV.

The Bobcats finished 2018 in style, and had it not been for a bad first half against Miami (OH) in a 30-28 loss, Ohio could have won six-straight and qualified for the MAC title game. Nathan Rourke, A.J. Ouellette, and the Bobcats’ powerful rushing game will win the war against the San Diego State front-seven and light up the scoreboard in the process. This will be the best offense San Diego State has witnessed all year long. Offensively, it will be difficult for the Aztecs to find an answer to match Ohio.

Ohio wins consecutive bowl games and finishes 9-4 once more, sending A.J. Ouellette, Papi White, and others out with a monumental win.

Prediction: Ohio 38, San Diego State 20