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2019 Week 2 MAC Preview: Ohio Bobcats @ Pittsburgh Panthers

With Nathan Rourke leading the charge, can Ohio’s ground game leave Heinz Field with a W?

Ohio v Cincinnati Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Since 2014, the MAC has won 16 games over teams from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC — a group of conferences colloquially known as the “Power Five.”

And on Saturday morning, before College GameDay even concludes, Ohio has the chance to pull off a 17th win as slight underdogs to the ACC’s Pittsburgh Panthers — the same team 15th year head coach Frank Solich defeated to earn his first-ever victory at Ohio.

Ohio started its season 1-0 with an expected three-touchdown victory over Rhode Island of the FCS. While the offense looked strong under senior quarterback Nathan Rourke, the defense allowed too many points for Frank Solich’s liking against a squad from the lower division. Still, the Bobcats’ first win came with ease, unlike the six-point win over their FCS opponent on Week 1 in 2018. Pitt represents Ohio’s only “Power Five” opponent on the schedule, so the Bobcats should be fully prepared to deliver on the road in a potential statement game.

Pitt enters with the worse record at 0-1. The Panthers kicked off their season in conference play, falling 30-14 to dark horse ACC contender Virginia. Pitt led the Cavaliers 14-13 at the half in Heinz Field, but a stout Virginia defense forced two Kenny Pickett interceptions and came up with several stops to shut out the Panthers in the second half.

Under Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers participated in the ACC Championship Game a year ago as surprise ACC Coastal champions. Pitt struggled with a brutal non-conference schedule which featured in-state rival Penn State, UCF, Notre Dame, and Stanford in the Hyundai Sun Bowl. In 2019, Pitt’s non-conference schedule doesn’t appear as brutal, but the Panthers can’t afford to overlook Ohio with two AP Top 20 teams looming on the schedule.

Breaking down Ohio

Nathan Rourke is the engine which continues to fuel this Ohio team for the third straight season. Rourke remains one of the most lethal dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, and he’s off to another great start in 2019. Against Rhode Island, Rourke produced 175 passing yards and 88 rushing yards, accounting for three total touchdowns. He’s a primary reason why the Bobcats are favored to win the MAC and his growth as a passer makes Ohio — a team which traditionally thrives in the power run game — a threat through the air.

While Papi White and Andrew Meyer are gone from Rourke’s arsenal of weapons, he still has a bevy of talent in the receiving corps with Cameron Odom, Jerome Buckner, Isiah Cox, and Tyler Tupa. Rourke spread the wealth in the opener, connecting with eight different receivers on the afternoon.

In the backfield, Rourke is Ohio’s current leading rusher but the Bobcats are working a new running back duo of O’Shaan Allison (38 yards in opener) and Julian Ross (68 in opener). Expect another back to make his presence felt at Heinz Field, and that is junior De’Montre Tuggle. Tuggle, a junior college transfer, enjoyed a breakout Week 1 with 65 yards and two touchdowns on just three carries.

Defensively, Ohio replaced a lot of faces this offseason, but the team returns free safety Javon Hagan. As one of the best tacklers in the MAC, Hagan recorded five in the opener. He’s also a weapon in the secondary with six interceptions and 21 passes defended in his career, and he is a renowned havoc causer. Hagan never shies away from contact and has forced six fumbles during his time at Ohio.

Middle linebacker Jared Dorsa is another player who will play a key role in stopping the run this Saturday. He’s the heart of Ohio’s 4-3 defense and led the team with eight tackles last weekend while contributing on an assisted sack.

Breaking down Pitt

The Virginia game is a performance quarterback Kenny Pickett would like to put in the back of his mind. Pickett completed roughly 50% of his passes, throwing two second half picks and 185 yards on 41 attempts. This will be year two of Pickett as Pitt’s primary starter, and last year he was a serviceable QB for the ACC Coastal champs with 12 touchdowns and a hair short of 2,000 passing yards.

Pitt’s rushing struggled mightily in Week 1 as no rusher earned more than 25 yards on the ground. The Panthers ranked 18th in rushing yards per game a season ago with halfback Qadree Ollison, but the team struggled establishing a ground attack without the fifth round draft pick present. That leaves A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. as Ollison’s successors, and both of them will hope to find openings against an Ohio defense which permitted only 84 rushing yards last week.

The top receiver for the Panthers is senior Maurice Ffrench. To build on a 515-yard, 6-touchdown season from 2018, Ffrench caught six passes for 54 yards in his 2019 debut. He’ll likely match up against Ohio cornerback Marlin Brooks, which should prove to be an interesting 1-on-1 to watch Saturday morning.

On Pitt’s defense, the player Ohio’s defensive staff should have circled during film sessions is free safety Damar Hamlin. He was selected to the Bednarik Award watch list for the nation’s best defender after leading the Panthers’ secondary with 76 tackles a season ago. Additionally, Hamlin intercepted two passes in 2018 and excels at bat-downs in deep zone coverage.

Game Notes

Time and Date: Saturday, September 7 at 11 a.m. ET

Network: ACC Network

Location: Heinz Field — Pittsburgh, PA

Spread: Pittsburgh (-5.5)

ESPN FPI: Pittsburgh has 76.5% chance to win

All-time series: Pitt leads 6-1

Last meeting: Ohio 16, Pitt 10 — September 9, 2005

The Panthers and Bobcats clawed to an interesting finish 14 seasons ago. After a slow 10-10 result through four quarters, Ohio’s Dion Byrum picked off Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko’s pass in overtime and returned it 85 yards to the house. First-year head coach Frank Solich, one day after his 61st birthday (his 75th will be one day after this year’s game), earned his first win as a Bobcat when Byrum’s foot crossed the plane on the other end.

Prediction

This one smells like an upset. Pitt fielded a below-average rushing defense in 2018, and the Panthers will be tested by one of the country’s most elusive quarterbacks in Nathan Rourke. Pitt hasn’t established a semblance of an offense this year, only posting 14 points and 263 total yards against Virginia.

Pitt’s rushing offense will improve from where it was at a week ago, but the Bobcats still have the advantage in that facet, and they trot out an experienced coach who has pulled off many upsets throughout the years. The MAC wins its first “Power Five” game of 2018, and if you have ACC Network, you might want to split-screen the start of this one with the end of College GameDay. It will be worth it.

Prediction: Ohio 27, Pitt 23