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2018 Week 4 MAC Preview: Ohio Bobcats @ Cincinnati Bearcats

Bob vs. Bear. Only one feline can scratch to victory in this cat-themed fight.

NCAA Football: Virginia vs Ohio Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Ohio Bobcats haven’t exactly lived up to their MAC champion expectations through two weeks. Frank Solich’s team sits dissatisfied with a .500 record, using a second half comeback to narrowly edge out an FCS program for its only win.

Ohio earned a rather early bye week on Week 2 before resuming play last Saturday. Due to Tropical Storm Florence, the Bobcats battled Virginia at a neutral site in Nashville instead of the originally schedule venue of Charlottesville. Still, the Cavaliers’ offense was too much for Ohio to handle. Virginia hasn’t finished a season with a winning record since 2011, but the Cavaliers posted a 45-31 win on the Bobcats at Vanderbilt Stadium.

Second Team All-MAC quarterback Nathan Rourke hasn’t been his 2017 self yet. The Bobcats alternated possessions between Rourke and former starter Quinton Maxwell in Week 1’s 38-32 victory after a slow start. Through two contests, Rourke is batting under .500 with his 46.2% completion percentage and 57 rushing yards — a far cry from the dual threat he was last year.

Although Rourke has yet to break through in 2018, one star Bobcat player is continuing his excellence. Wide receiver Papi White has registered 285 receiving yards and two touchdowns thus far, and the speedster is also taking on punt return duties.

Hopefully for the Bobcats, Rourke can return to form before conference play starts so the offense achieves the flow it had at the end of 2017. With Buffalo and Akron looking sharp, the division crown that seemed destined to land in Athens, OH seems as open as ever.

Saturday afternoon will mark the second-to-last non-conference matchup for Solich and the Bobcats. Although still winnable, the game against Cincinnati looks much less promising now than it did in the preseason.

The Bearcats under second-year head coach Luke Fickell have been one of the nice surprises of 2018. Cincinnati, a former power during the twilight years of the Big East, finally looks to be back on the upswing. The Bearcats stormed into the Rose Bowl and knocked off UCLA by multiple possessions, shut out their hated rival Miami-OH, and trounced an FCS program 63-7 en route to a 3-0 standing.

Offensively, quarterback Desmond Ridder and running back Michael Warren II have been leading the charge. The former of the two has thrown four touchdown passes while avoiding the typical freshman mistake of throwing an interception. He ranks second on the team in rushing, one spot behind Warren.

Warren, a seldom used player a year ago, dominated UCLA’s defense with 142 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 26-17 decision Week 1. The sophomore running back has posted three touchdowns and 169 yards since, producing at a consistent pace. Virginia running back Jordan Ellis had no issue dominating Ohio’s run defense with 171 yards and three scores last week, so Warren could see similar numbers based on recent trends.

Although Ohio’s run defense has been a problem at times, the Bobcats are actually worse at guarding the air. Ohio ranks dead last in the FBS in passing yards allowed per game with 431.5. Of course, Ohio has one less data point than the majority of FBS teams, but yielding 379 yards to Virginia and even more to an FCS opponent is very concerning.

The defense, which was Ohio’s strength two seasons ago, has quickly turned into a major weakness over time. The exodus of key defenders including Blair Brown and Quentin Poling has not helped, but this secondary is actually the most experienced position group on the Bobcats. Ohio nearly replaced its entire front-seven, but retained starters Javon Hagan, Kylan Nelson, and Jalen Fox to counter the air attack. So far, it hasn’t been working.

Ridder’s passing attempt numbers haven’t been sky high, but the quarterback may increase those numbers to test a defense that allowed two touchdown passes over 75 yards a week ago.

Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday, September 22 — 12 p.m. EST
  • Venue: Nippert Stadium — Cincinnati, OH
  • Network: ESPNU
  • ESPN FPI Predictor: Cincinnati has 83.5% chance of winning
  • All-time series: Cincinnati leads 24-23-4

The two programs used to play on a regular basis, dating all the way back to the late 19th century. Ohio and Cincinnati first met in 1897 and continued an ongoing rivalry that survived until the early 1950s when the Bearcats exited the MAC. Starting in 1968, the teams began playing on an annual basis again, but the two in-state opponents broke it off in 1981. Cincinnati won that matchup 19-9 in Athens, and the programs astonishingly have not met since.

Prediction

I’m on board with Fickell’s rebuild in Cincinnati. The Bearcats are emerging as a dark-horse contender in the American Conference, and they’ve put together nice pieces on offense like Warren and a decent group of receivers. Defensively, Cincinnati has been dominant, allowing just 228.7 yards (3rd in FBS) per game and 8.0 points per game (2nd in FBS).

Defensive tackle Marquise Copeland will lead the Bearcats defense, a defense that should have no problem making plenty of stops against an inconsistent Ohio offense. Cincinnati’s offense isn’t anything mind-blowing, but the unit should be capable of putting up several touchdowns on Ohio’s defense, which has opened 2018 in shambles.

Prediction: Cincinnati 27, Ohio 14