clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Ohio Bobcats

The MAC East’s most consistent program will contend for a title in 2020.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Nevada
Coach Frank Solich and company celebrating the Bobcats’ third consecutive bowl win.
Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Ohio returns to the gridiron in 2020 for a COVID-shortened six game schedule and figure to be a strong contender for the MAC 2020 title as the MAC East’s most consistent program.

The Bobcats have been bowl-eligible for a MAC-leading 11 straight seasons, winning the last three straight bowls by a combined score of 98-27.

Having consistent success for more than a decade requires a program with a strong identity: a team that knows who it is, what it is trying to do, populated by players who fit that vision.

Looking at the 2020 roster, I see a lot of those types of players on both sides of the ball.

Yet, how high the Bobcats will climb in 2020 depends on how well they can adjust to the loss of some special players and finding a way to turn the close losses in 2019 into wins.


Key Losses

At the end of the 2019 season, Ohio lost some key players including all-time program greats, QB Nathan Rourke, S Javon Hagan, K Louie Zervos, and P Michael Farkas. How well Ohio does in 2020 will have a lot to do with how well they are able to make up this lost production.

Offense

Quarterback

What the offense looks like without Nathan Rourke in 2020 is the obvious offensive storyline of 2020.

The loss of Nathan Rourke creates the biggest question mark going into 2020 because Rourke’s ability to execute the offense forced Ohio’s opponents to defend the entire field or pay the consequences.

In his three seasons at the helm, the Rourke-led Bobcats averaged 37.8 points per points per game, finishing in the top 20 in FBS scoring all three seasons.

Rourke’s ability to gash the edge of the defense for big gains running various options kept edge defenders from consistently abandoning their posts to attack the interior running game. When opponents committed to containing the run, Rourke was able to consistently hit for big yards in the passing game. The result was big plays in the running and passing game, where the Bobcats finished seventh in the FBS in rushing yards per attempt (5.48 ypa) and 19th in passing yards per attempt (14.12).

Rourke ran Ohio’s offense like few other MAC QBs have run their respective offenses in MAC history. Here are a few of Rourke’s records (most of the available online records go back to 1962, unless otherwise noted. Stats provided by sports-reference.com/cfb):

  • 2nd most touchdowns accounted for, career 111 (tied with Marshall’s Chad Pennington for 2nd most since 1956)
  • 6th in yards per passing attempt, career: 8.3
  • 6th in rushing yards per attempt, career: 6.2 (tied)
  • 8th in rushing touchdowns, season: 21
  • 11th in passing efficiency, career: 146.5

Offensive Line

The offensive line took a major hit for the second straight season, losing another three All-MAC players. In 2018, the Bobcats lost All-MAC performers Joe Lowery, Joe Anderson, and Durrell Wood, followed in 2019 by the losses of tackles Austen Pleasants and Marques Grimes and interior lineman Steven Hayes.

Pleasants played both tackle positions, switching to left tackle for the 2019 season, earning second-team all-MAC honors. Pleasants was signed to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad after the summer camp. Marques Grimes cracked the starting lineup in 2019 at right tackle and never looked back, garnering third-team all-MAC selection. Hayes was a valuable player on the interior, who showed the versatility to play guard or center and appeared in 24 games.

Defense

The Bobcats return several starters in 2020, but did lose a couple of key players in Javon Hagan and Cole Baker. Also, the roster status for a few 2019 starters is unknown.

Secondary

Along with Nathan Rourke, Ohio might as well waive the mandatory Ohio Hall of Fame period and induct safety Javon Hagan today. Hagan made his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, going on to win MAC Freshman of The Year honors in 2016 while leading the Bobcats to its last MAC title appearance. Hagan earned all-MAC honors every season, including first-team selections in 2018 and 2019. Hagan was signed as an undrafted free agent by Tampa Bay and was signed to the Buccaneers’ practice squad at the end of summer camp.

Hagan finished his career with impressive stats: 316 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 7 forced fumbles, 6 interceptions, and 3 fumble recoveries. Hagan’s versatility and physicality will be missed.

Defensive Line

Another key defensive loss is DT Cole Baker, who was a leader on the interior of the defensive line. Solid defensive tackles in the MAC (and everywhere else) are worth their weight in gold and Cole was a starter and key contributor. The defense played better when he was in the game.

DT Brian Arp played his last snap as a Bobcat in 2019. Working his way up the depth chart, he was a significant contributor in 2018 and 2019, appearing in 23 games.

Linebacker

Eric Popp finished his Bobcat career in 2019. Popp was a key reserve and special teams player who contributed 91 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries, and a forced fumble.

(COVID-19 Note: Two starters from the 2019 defense, LB Dylan Conner and CB Marlin Brooks, as well as QB Drew Keszei, have opted-out of the 2020 season according to an email from Ohio University’s Director of Athletic Communications.)

Special Teams

As a unit, the special teams may have taken the biggest hit this offseason, with the loss of K Louie Zervos, P Michael Farkas, LS Devin King. These three players formed what is arguably the best trio of specialists on the same squad in Ohio history.

Zervos and Farkas leave big shoes to fill as highly-accomplished four-year starters. Zervos set the Ohio record for career points with 437, set a single-season Bobcat record with 29 field goals in 2016, and finished second all-time in field goal accuracy at 81%.

Farkas is in the conversation of all-time program greats who are not named Dave Zastudil. Farkas is among the statistical leaders in Ohio history, finishing 2nd all-time in career punt yard average, but it is the non-statistical stuff that may have been his biggest asset. While handling kickoff as well as punting duties, Farkas displayed the ability to place the ball at points on the field which helped the coverage or provided a spark.

No Hustle Belt discussion of losses is complete without mentioning the loss of a player like WR and special team ace DL Knock, who worked his way in as a walk-on to become an important contributor. Some of his key plays include a 99-yard kickoff return for touchdown to overcome a halftime deficit against the Howard Bison in 2018 and a blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown by Alvin Floyd in a win over Western Michigan. DL also caught the first touchdown pass in the 2017 Bahamas Bowl.


Returning/Added

Although Ohio lost some all-time program greats at the end of the 2019 season, the squad returns about seven or eight starters on each side of the ball (depending on how fall camp goes) and significant, experienced, quality depth at most position groups.

Offense

Quarterback

With the departure of Nathan Rourke, this is obviously a major area of change for the 2020 season. We plan on publishing an in-depth preview of this area later this week in a piece on key storylines for the Bobcats 2020 season, but, for now, here are some highlights.

There is a lot of talent in this group but only one with significant experience.

Ohio added dual threat senior Armani Rogers, who transferred from UNLV. Rogers provides some much needed college game experience to this group, having appeared in 20 games from 2017-2019. Rogers was a four-star recruit and was named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year. Rogers has excellent speed and has shown flashes of brilliance, passing for almost 2,500 yards and rushing for another 1,550 while at UNLV.

Redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke (Nathan’s brother), along with Naylan Yates, are the only QBs on the current roster returning from 2019.

Freshman CJ Harris was added as part of the 2020 recruiting class along with Kadin Beler. Harris is a dual-threat QB with a big arm.

I could see Armani Rogers or Kurtis Rourke as the best bets for week one starter, possibly alternating series until a starter emerges. If not alternating, Rogers and Rourke would appear to be options 1 and 1a.

Running Backs

Multiple running backs with significant experience return from last year’s squad, led by O’Shaan Allison, De’Montre Tuggle, and Julian Ross. According to sports-reference.com, among backs who had more that six carries per game in 2019, Tuggle led the MAC in yards per carry with 6.4 and Allison was second with 6.3. Tuggle is nominated for the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Watch List for 2020, and its easy to see why based how he ran in 2019.

Wide Receivers

The wide receiving group returns a ton of experience and talent from last season, led by Cameron Odom, Shane Hooks, Isiah Cox, Jerome Buckner, and Tyler Walton. Hooks and Cox were two of the more explosive receivers in the conference last season, averaging 19.8 and 17.0 yards per catch respectively.

Offensive Line and Tight Ends

The ability of Ohio’s offensive line to keep playing at a high level in spite of the offensive line coach and player turnover speaks to the premium Ohio puts on recruiting talented coaches and players on the offensive line. Since the 2017 season, Ohio has lost seven offensive linemen to graduation who made at least one All-MAC team during that period. Also, Ohio has three different offensive line coaches in the last four years, but still finished in the top 20 in the FBS in scoring the last three seasons.

Heading into 2020, the Bobcats offensive line looks strong again.

The loss of linemen Pleasants and Grimes after the 2019 season will create inexperience at tackle, but the line remains strong on the interior with an experienced, versatile group including center Brett Kitrell and guards Hagen Meservy and Kurt Danneker. According to Phil Steele’s preview magazine, Nick Sink, an interior lineman in 2019, may slide out to right tackle. Redshirt freshman Jay Amburgey and Junior Samson Jackson are in the mix at left tackle.

The tight end group is led by seniors TEs Ryan and Adam Lueherman. Ryan was a significant factor last year in the passing game with 28 receptions and 5 touchdowns and both are good run blockers.

Defense

The defense returns the majority of its players from last year’s squad and the team should be improved in Ron Collins and Pete Germano’s second year as co-defensive coordinators.

Front Seven

The defensive line and linebackers look to be an improved group overall with the biggest question likely at defensive line depth. Ohio likes to rotate defensive linemen and appear to have the personnel to do that but many of the reserves do not have significant experience.

The interior line starts with Junior Kai Caesar, who has appeared in 25 games for the Bobcats. DT Denzel Daxon, who redshirted last year, is the second-highest ranked recruit for Ohio since 247Sports started recruit tracking in 2010. Daxon could be an immediate difference maker based on his rating. There are a number of underclassmen and JUCOs from which a few solid rotational players could emerge. Redshirt sophomore Kylen McCracken, Zach Burks, and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Burton figure to be in the mix for playing time, among others.

A key contributor at DT, Marcus Coleman, is no longer listed on the online roster and it is unclear regarding his status for 2020. He may have opted-out but this was not confirmed.

The defensive end group returns three experienced players in Captain Will Evans, Austin Conrad, and Amos Ogun-Semore. Evans and Conrad, a former tight end, should be in the mix for All-MAC honors by season’s end.

The linebackers return a blend of experience and youth, led by Jared Dorsa, Keye Thompson, and Jack McCrory.

Dorsa, a rising senior, should be playing his best football in year three as a starter and will be in the conversation for All-MAC status at season’s end. Starter Keye Thompson and interior reserve Jack McCrory are rising stars in the MAC.

Ohio’s linebacker group is talented and deep, and with Dylan Conner opting-out for 2020, several underclassmen will be in the mix for playing time including Jeremiah Wood, Cannon Blauser, Bryce Houston, Kyle Kelly, and Ben Johnson, among others.

Secondary

Safety Jarren Hampton will have the opportunity to lead in the secondary and is poised for a break-out season. Alvin Floyd looks to get the first crack at the open safety position vacated by Javon Hagan. Jamal Hudson returns at cornerback along with the Motley brothers, Ilyaas and Xavior. The Motleys gained significant experience with the early season-ending injury to Hudson in 2019.

Special Teams

We will talk about special teams in the upcoming key storylines piece, but the headline here is that Ohio is replacing everyone: punter, kicker, and long snapper. Ohio has some talented recruits here, but it is a question mark having yet to see any significant playing time from these guys. Redshirt freshman kicker Tristan Vandenburg and freshman punter Jack Wilson will play significant roles in the outcome of this season.


Schedule

The 2020 schedule consists of six games, five against the MAC East team and one MAC West team:

DATE OPPONENT
Wednesday, November 4, 2020 @Central Michigan
Tuesday November 10, 2020 vs Akron
Tuesday November 17, 2020 @ Miami
Saturday November 28, 2020 vs Bowling Green
Saturday December 5, 2020 vs Buffalo
Saturday December 12, 2020 @ Kent State

Outlook

Head coach Frank Solich and Associate Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator Tim Albin return for their 16th season with the Bobcats. The coaches know what they want to do and look to have the players in place to compete for a MAC title in 2020.

Quarterback and special teams specialists are the major personnel question marks for 2020. There is enough talent in these personnel groups to win a title but, with a six-game season and a shortened preseason due to COVID-19, there isn’t going to be much time to develop that talent.

As rival Miami showed last year, a team can win a MAC championship with an inexperienced quarterback— if they have other strengths. Ohio has some of the best skill position groups in the MAC, and that should take some of the pressure off the new quarterback.

Whether or not Ohio made the championship game in several seasons of the Solich era has always seemed to come down to a handful of plays in a few games.

Last year, Ohio lost three games to Northern Illinois, Miami, and Western Michigan by a total of 9 points, taking them out of the MAC East division race. This year will be another competitive year, with Buffalo, Miami, and Kent State all figuring to be in the mix for a MAC East title. And the schedule makers didn’t do Ohio any favors by scheduling the Bobcats to open the season at 2019 MAC West champion Central Michigan. Ohio has historically struggled against CMU, with a 5-25-2 record. Ohio will need to find a way to make a few more plays to win these tough, close games if it is going to make it to Detroit in December for the MAC title game.

That said, they certainly have the talent to be able to make a run, and with a steady coaching staff at the helm, the Bobcats should be ready for any challenges that rise up out of the woodwork in the unconventional 2020 season.