After winning six of its last seven to finish 2018 and entering 2019 as MAC favorites, it’s safe to describe the Ohio Bobcats’ start to the new year as “unsatisfying.”
The Bobcats are 1-2 after dropping two straight road contests to Pittsburgh and Marshall. In the game at Pitt, Ohio’s offense massively struggled to move the ball. The team recorded just 35 total rushing yards and faced six sacks from the Panther defense. Ohio’s 10 points in Heinz Field was the lowest scoring output the program has witnessed since November 2016.
Last Saturday night in Huntington, WV, quarterback Nathan Rourke led the Bobcats to 31 points behind a 215 and 118-yard game through the air and ground. Ohio boosted its offense to 438 yards but the Bobcat defense allowed 33 points and 511 yards to the Thundering Herd. Ohio climbed out of a 10-point halftime deficit to retake the lead, but the defense allowed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Gaines seal the deal for the Herd in the fourth.
Two contrasting performances and two losses later, the Bobcats are back at home yearning for their first FBS win of the season. But the opponent is an improved dark-horse Sun Belt contender. The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns qualified for their conference championship game a year ago and they’re off to another solid start in 2019.
Louisiana hung with Mississippi State in the Superdome to kick off its season, falling 38-28 in netural-site action. The Ragin’ Cajuns then dispatched of Liberty before dropping a ridiculous 77 points against FCS foe Texas Southern. Louisiana is looking for three non-conference wins in a season for the first time since 2013 when it flies north to face Frank Solich’s Bobcats.
Nathan Rourke’s name is now etched in the record books.
With a 7-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter against Marshall, Rourke surpassed former Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton (82 career touchdowns) for most touchdowns accounted for in an Ohio Bobcat career (more on Rourke’s record in link above). Rourke then placed an exclamation point on that record by doing what he does best — scrambling 72 yards on the Herd defense for a go-ahead touchdown.
While Rourke and the Bobcats couldn’t escape their former MAC rival’s stadium with a victory, Rourke exited Huntington with regained confidence. The senior from Ontario bounced back from a -43 rushing yard performance at Pitt with 118 yards on nine attempts last week. He looked better as a passer too with a trio of touchdown throws. Much of Rourke’s week-to-week improvement can be attributed to the offensive line, which permitted zero sacks in Week 3 after struggling to counter Pitt’s pressure on the pass rush.
The other signal caller in Athens this weekend is junior Baton Rouge native Levi Lewis. Lewis is in his first season as the full-time starter for the Ragin’ Cajuns and he’s done a solid job with 627 passing yards and five touchdowns through two games. Although he made his mark as a wildcat QB as a freshman, Lewis has kept things in the pocket and rarely scrambles for rushing opportunities.
The rushing yards for Louisiana are taken care of by two dominant halfbacks. Both Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais are averaging over 11 yards per carry on over 20 rushes this season. The backs both posted 100-yard performances against Liberty and continue to thrive in powering Louisiana’s offense. In fact, it’s not just Ragas and Calais doing the heavy lifting. Six Louisiana running backs have over 60 yards through three games and five of them average over nine yards per attempt. Those six runners combine for 11 touchdowns, many of which were recorded against Texas Southern.
Ohio’s running game hasn’t displayed the same effectiveness as it did when A.J. Ouellette served his time in Athens. Despite a counterproductive game against Pitt, Rourke still leads the team with an average of 50 yards per game. O’Shaan Allison is earning the most attempts out of the backfield, but junior De’Montre Tuggle has been Ohio’s strongest runner in Solich’s 15th year with the program. Tuggle has capitalized on his opportunities by racking up 7.6 yards per carry and he leads all Bobcat players with three touchdowns on the season.
In the receiving department, both run-first teams have emerging deep threats. Ohio’s Jerome Buckner averaged nearly 35 yards per catch in limited action last year. With a much larger role and sample size in the offense, he is replacing Papi White as the No. 1 receiver with 140 yards — good for 17.5 per catch. For the Cajuns, Ja’Marcus Bradley is resuming his production after registering over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago. Bradley also records a relatively-high 17 yards per catch and is Lewis’ most-targeted weapon this season.
Ohio allowed 20 points in a 21-point win over Rhode Island but allowed the same amount in a 10-point loss to Pitt. The Bobcats’ defense is a rather consistent unit and one which seems to improve with time every season. Once again, the unit suffered major turnover in the offseason with the losses of Evan Croutch among other key members of the front seven. But even with inside linebacker Jared Dorsa and free safety Javon Hagan back to lead the defense, Ohio still hasn’t recaptured the magic of the defense, which forced a shutout in the Frisco Bowl, from the end of 2018.
One week after Marshall scored seven points on Boise State, the Thundering Herd offense exploded on Ohio for over 500 yards and 33 points. Ohio primarily struggled stopping the run game against Marshall, although limiting Kenny Pickett’s passing was the issue the previous week.
While Ohio has matched up against two opponents of similar caliber, Louisiana’s schedule is all over the place. There are massive gaps in talent between Mississippi State, Liberty, and Texas Southern, so judging the progress of the Ragin’ Cajuns defense is not easy. The unit allowed 38 to the Bulldogs, 14 to the Flames, and six to its FCS opponent.
The numbers say Louisiana’s defense is about the most average in the FBS. In passing yards allowed, the team’s 58th. In rushing, 72nd, and in total yards, the Cajuns are ranked 62nd. The key for Louisiana involves limiting Rourke’s dual-threat capabilities and replicating the pressure Pitt applied to the two-time All-MAC quarterback.
For Ohio, it’s about limiting Louisiana’s litany of running backs from gaining comfortable yardage on carries. Forcing the Ragin’ Cajuns, which rank fourth in the country in total first downs earned, to three-and-outs will be key in order to establish an early lead. Ohio’s defense must let the offense strike force and prevent the team from playing catch-up for the third week in a row.
Time and Date: Saturday, September 21 at 2 p.m. ET
Location: Peden Stadium — Athens, OH
Spread: Ohio (-3.5)
ESPN FPI: Louisiana has 52.7% chance to win
All-time series: Ohio leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Ohio 38, Louisiana 31 — October 30, 2010
Despite four interceptions, quarterback Boo Jackson led the Bobcats to victory by accounting for four total touchdowns. Ohio scored four touchdowns in the final 19 minutes of action to gain bowl eligibility and exit Peden Stadium with a 7-point win over the Ragin’ Cajuns.
This is a tough one. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Ohio finished 3-0 against its opening schedule. While 1-2 is alarming, it wasn’t a completely unexpected result as both road matchups — Pitt and Marshall — featured challenging opponents.
Unfortunately for Ohio, Louisiana is growing to that caliber. The Ragin’ Cajuns saw noticeable improvement under Billy Napier in his first year with the program. In Napier’s second season, his team has already shown capability of hanging with Mississippi State while walloping Liberty and an FCS program.
This game comes down to which rushing defense folds and which rushing offense rises as a result. Rourke is a dynamic playmaker and with a return game to Peden Stadium after a record-breaking week, it’s hard to bet against “Air Canada.” Bobcats take this one, but Ragas and the Cajun offense keep it within one score.
Frank Solich is too good for a 1-3 start.
Prediction: Ohio 31, Louisiana 27