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2019 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl Game Preview: Ohio Bobcats vs Nevada Wolf Pack

Why bowl games are like chicken wings and other good reasons to watch...

NCAA Football: Frisco Bowl-Ohio vs San Diego State Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There are several reasons to tune in to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl to see the Ohio Bobcats (6-6, 5-3 MAC) take on the Nevada Wolf Pack (7-5, 4-4 MW).

For instance, when asked for his reaction to Nevada being selected to play in a bowl game this year, head coach Jay Norvell offered this:

And while the folks sponsoring the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl might have preferred an Idaho potato comparison instead of a chicken wing comparison, I’d wager they’d still agree with the principle of it. (After all, chicken and potatoes compliment each other pretty well.)

Take for example the Kent State’s 51-41 win over Utah State in the 2019 Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl. Picked by several major publications to be one of the “worst” bowl games of 2019-20, it turned out to be pretty darn good game; a physical, thrilling, highly-contested match from beginning to end--it was a highly entertaining game to watch.

And although clearly team win for Kent State, college football fans were treated to what could have been the emergence of Kent State’s QB Dustin Crum as the next great MAC QB. Crum may not turn out to play in the NFL like Chad Pennington, Ben Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, or other MAC greats, but his performance left no doubt he could play big in big games. Playing for the first bowl win in program history, Crum completed 80% of his passes for 289 yards and two scores while rushing for 147 more and the game-clinching score on fourth and one late in the fourth quarter.

So, what are storylines worth watching in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl?

For openers, the both teams are looking to build on recent bowl success.

Until the Buffalo Bulls and Kent State Golden Flashes won their first bowl games in 2019, Ohio had carried the torch for the MAC in bowl games so to speak, being the only team to win a bowl game between 2016-18.

Ohio had notable bowl games in 2017 and 2018, winning back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history and in convincing fashion; Ohio beat the UAB Blazers and San Diego Aztecs by a combined 68-6, including the first shutout by a MAC team in bowl history (27-0 win over the San Diego Aztecs in the 2018 Frisco Bowl).

If Ohio can beat Nevada, they will tie the MAC record for current MAC teams with three consecutive bowl wins. The Toledo Rockets won the Tangerine Bowl three straight years from 1969-1971. Not to be outdone, the Miami RedHawks won the Tangerine Bowl three straight years from 1973-1975, including wins over Georgia Bulldogs and Florida Gators.

The all-time record for consecutive MAC bowl wins was set by former MAC member Marshall Thundering Herd, who won five straight bowls from 1997-2002.

If Nevada beats Ohio, the Wolf Pack will win back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history.

The game is also the final time to see two of Ohio’s all-time greatest player suit up for the Bobcats.

QB Nathan Rourke is arguably one of the greatest QBs in Ohio history, owning the record for most touchdowns accounted for in a career with 110 (60 passing, 48 rushing, 2 receiving). Rourke’s career touchdowns accounted for shattered the previous Ohio record of 83 by Ohio great Tyler Tettleton. This season, Rourke ranks 16th in the FBS in points accounted for per game with 16.5.

Rourke is also one of the most productive rushers in MAC history. Rourke’s career average of 6.1 yards per rushing attempt is tied for 8th in the MAC since 1962.

Finally, with an average outing vs Nevada, Rourke will surpass 10,000 total yards for his Ohio career; currently, Rourke has 9,898 career yards (7,313 yards passing, 2,547 yards rushing, and 38 yards receiving).

Senior safety Javon Hagan burst onto the scene his freshman year, winning MAC Freshman of The Year honors in 2016-17, helping Ohio win a MAC East Title. Hagan’s hallmark is his versatility and Ohio has used him successfully all over the field; for example, as an extra defender in the box, in man coverage on slot receivers, and in zone coverage as a single-deep defender. Hagan goes into the contest against Nevada with impressive career stat totals: 315 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 9 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 6 interceptions, and 26 pass breakups.


When the Ohio Bobcats have the ball

Ohio has been one of the most productive offenses in the FBS in the last three seasons, finishing 9th, 12th, and 20th in scoring offense each season, respectively. The Bobcats averaged 34.7 points per contest this year. What Ohio is going to do offensively has not changed much over that period of time. Ohio will typically run the ball more than throw, with an assortment of dives, runs between the guards and tackles, and options which test the defense all along the defensive front.

Along with Rourke, who leads the Bobcats with 12 rushing touchdowns, Ohio has primarily used a two-back system with freshman O’Shaan Allison leading with 823 yards rushing and 6.4 yards per carry. Allison’s yards per carry average is tied for 15th best in the FBS in 2019. RB De’Montre Tuggle has played well in relief, contributing 547 yards and 10 scores.

Ohio will work off the run and take some shots down field, looking for some chunk plays in the passing game. Ohio has been successful in moving the ball in chunks through the air in the last three years, ranking 13th, 20th, and 23rd in the FBS in passing yards per completion.

Opponents have successfully hit deep posts or streaks against Nevada’s defense this year and I expect Ohio to take some similar shots.

Depending on who is healthy for Ohio, the Bobcats have the players to go deep, including two WRs in the top ten in the MAC this season in yards per catch for receivers who had a minimum of 20 receptions. Freshman WR Shane Hooks led the MAC this year with 19.8 yards per catch. Isiah Cox ranked seventh with 16.4 yards per reception.

Nevada will have to find a way to overcome the loss of four key defensive players from a defense already allowing 32.1 points per game. Defensive backs Austin Arnold and Daniel Brown and defensive lineman Hausia Sekona were suspended for the bowl game for participation in a brawl that occurred at the end of the last game against rival UNLV. Linebacker Gabe Sewell is suspending for the first half of the game. Arnold, Brown, Sekona, and Sewell had appeared in a combined 45 games for Nevada this season, so the loss of these players will likely be felt by the Nevada defense.


When Nevada Wolf Pack has the ball

Nevada features a young battery which sparks Nevada’s attack and bodes well for the future in freshman QB Carson Strong and sophomore RB Toa Taua.

The Wolf Pack used three QBs this year but settled on Strong, who delivered with 1,933 yards passing, completing 63.4% of his passes with ten touchdowns against only seven interceptions. Nevada has not used Strong as a regular threat in the running game as Strong only has a net 22 yards rushing on the season, but Strong has shown he can scramble to keep the chains moving if the pocket breaks down.

Nevada’s attack is more balanced, running and passing about 50% of the time.

Like Ohio, Nevada features two primary running backs.

Taua, the Mountain West Freshman of The Year in 2018, led the Pack in rushing with 759 yards and six touchdowns. Taua might remind Ohio fans of former Bobcat running back A.J. Ouellette: Taua, at 5’9,” 210 pounds, runs with surprising speed and finishes plays with physicality when needed.

In short yardage, goal line, or to spell Taua, Nevada uses 230-pound power back Devonte Lee. Lee has proved effective in his roll, scoring six touchdowns on the season.

When Nevada throws the ball, they have a big target in 6’4” WR Elijah Cooks, who leads the team with 62 receptions this year for 729 yards and seven touchdowns. When in the red zone, look for the Wolf Pack to take a shot or two on the fade route to Cooks, whose height gives him an advantage in jump balls. Ohio’s starting corners are listed under six-feet tall.

Nevada WR Romeo Doubs could be a factor if he can play: he is currently listed as questionable due to a shoulder injury which caused him to miss regular season finale vs UNLV. Doubs had come on strong in the last three games he played, catching 20 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns. Doubs involvement had increase significantly at the end of the season when you consider he had 20 receptions in his last three games compared with 24 receptions in his first eight games.

Head Coach Jay Norvell reportedly assumed more of the play calling duties in the last four games and the Wolf Pack have scored seven more points per game during that span compared with the first eight games of the year (26 vs 19 points per game). The jury is out on how much is improvement by the Nevada offense and how much is due to strength of schedule because the winning percentage of Nevada’s opponents in the first eight game was significantly better than in the last four games. Nevada’s first eight opponents combined to win 51% of their games this season while Nevada’s last four opponents have combined to win only 40% of their games.


Game Notes

  • Where/when: Friday, January 3rd, at 3:30 EST (1:30 local) at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho
  • How to watch: The game will be televised on ESPN, and can be streamed on the ESPN App (with valid cable subscription.)
  • Weather: 43 degrees at kickoff, with winds around 12 MPH thorough out. 40 percent chance of precipitation. (Per Weather.com.)
  • Odds: Ohio is an 8 point favorite, with an expected over/under of 58.5, per OddsShark.com. ESPN.com gives Ohio a “70% chance” to win the game.

Prediction

Ohio will cover the spread against Nevada if the Bobcats finish near even in the turnover margin. Ohio has one of the most productive offenses in the FBS in terms of points scored and Nevada is missing several key defenders due to the suspensions.

Ohio has been vulnerable at times against the run this year and Nevada may find some success there but not enough to keep pace with Ohio’s offense. Ohio has prepared well for recent bowls, beating its last two opponents by a combined score of 68-6. I see the Bobcats making it three bowl wins in a row by a score of 44-17.