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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: Ohio Bobcats vs. Syracuse Orange

This matchup features two teams looking to bounce back from an unusual 2020 campaign.

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 02 MAC Championship Game - Western Michigan v Ohio
Ohio is kicking off their 2021 campaign with all-black uniforms for a night game against Syracuse
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tim Albin begins his tenure as Ohio’s head coach this week with a talented team but some unknowns; primarily, what will the Bobcats defense look like when they hit the field Saturday having only played 3 games in the last 20 months due to COVID?

On the other side, Syracuse is hoping to show that its 1-10 record in 2020 was a fluke. The Orange went through significant change and turmoil last year which contributed to its struggles, between hiring new offensive and defensive coordinators and pushing through a COVID environment with a wave of injuries.

We take a look at some game notes followed by some keys for each squad heading into Saturday’s contest.


Game Notes

  • Time and Date: Saturday September 4th at 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Network: CBS Sports Network
  • Location: Peden Stadium — Athens, OH
  • Line: Syracuse (-1)
  • ESPN FPI: Ohio has 51.1% chance to win
  • Fact: This is Ohio’s first time hosting an ACC opponent
  • Special Event: ‘Bobcat Blackout.’ Ohio will feature black uniforms/helmets and Bobcat fans are asked to dress in all black.

Ohio Bobcats: Keys to the Contest

Offense

With a veteran interior o-line, one of the best RB groups in the MAC led by De’Montre Tuggle and O’Shaan Allison, and dual-threat guys like backup QB Amari Rogers, Ohio should be able to run the ball to some extent vs Syracuse.

The main question is how the Bobcat passing attack will fare against the Orange’s defensive scheme?

Syracuse’s defensive coordinator, Tony White, who comes from the Rocky Long coaching tree, and will bring his version of the 3-3-5 defense to Athens. Ohio fans might remember seeing head coach Long in action vs the Bobcats in the win over San Diego State in the 2018 DXL Frisco Bowl.

The 3-3-5 can be challenging to pass block against or, for a young QB to read properly, because of its aggressive nature forcing quick decisions from all the different fronts and blitzes.

Good pre-snap communication by players like team captain center Nick Sink will be a key in keeping the o-line and QB on the same page in order to avoid big plays by Syracuse’s attacking defense. Blocking by the running backs will also be a key to making the passing game go, with defensive players coming from all angles and directions, RB will be the last line of protection at times.

Starting QB Kurtis Rourke, in his fourth start as a Bobcat, will have his decision-making skills tested and needs to avoid mistakes created by this defensive pressure.

Defense

While the Bobcat’s offense was fairly well established with its current personnel prior to COVID, what Ohio will bring defensively in week one after playing only three games in 20 months is more of a mystery.

While it’s not possible to talk in detail how the Bobcats might perform in 2021 based on the 2020 three-game season and the make-up of the defensive roster, we know a few things.

The Bobcats will field some experienced players on the front and back ends of the defense. The d-line is led by super senior DE Will Evans, DT Kai Caesar, and DT Rodney Mathews. The secondary features senior safeties Jarren Hampton, captain Alvin Floyd, and senior CB Jamal Hudson.

We also know from Ohio’s play in 2020 on defense and special teams that the ‘Cats have one of the deepest defensive rosters they have had in some time, with very good speed.

With a veteran presence, very good depth at most spots, and speed, it is only a matter of time before this unit becomes very effective this season, but will that be in week one?

Special Teams

A big play on special teams would go a long way towards victory for the Ohio and ‘Cats like All-MAC performer RB De’Montre Tuggle and RB Julian Ross, both of whom had TD returns last year, give the Bobcats a shot to make that happen.

One of the biggest questions heading into 2021 for Ohio is how the kicker and punter will perform. Ohio broke in two new specialists last year to mixed results, based on a limited sample size: 2-6 on field goals and 36.9-yard average on 13 punts.

The Bobcats brought in two transfers to compete for the positions, K Stephen Johnson (Oklahoma) and P Jonah Wieland (Akron). While no starters at punter or kicker have been publicly announced at this point, what the Bobcats do here is going to be critical to winning a close game by getting precious points or maintaining field position advantage.


Syracuse Orange: Keys to the Contest

Key Players

  • WR Taj Harris. Career: 135 receptions, 1857 yards, 10 TDs.
  • LB Mikel Jones. 2020 Season: 68 tackles, 4 INTs, 2 forced fumbles
  • CB Garrett Williams. 2020 Season: 64 tackles, 2 INTS, 9 passes defensed, 1 TD

Perhaps the biggest question coming into this contest against the Bobcats is can the Orange field cohesive units on both sides of the ball? More than simply working out the early-season kinks, Syracuse has other concerns coming into 2021, from the impact of having relatively new coordinators (hired 2020), to the return of a number of players from injury, and a fair amount of youth in the two-deep.

Offense

The Orange look to rebound from a tough campaign in 2020 where they averaged less than 18 points a game. The Orange struggled in 2020 in both the running and passing game, finishing 121 out of 127 FBS teams in rushing yards with 92 per game and 110th in passing yards with 163 per game.

Key to the rebound will be a strong performance from returning injured players, including starting QB Tommy DeVito, who missed most of last year.

The Orange also brought in Mississippi State Transfer QB Garrett Shrader for 2021, who should see some series against the Bobcats according to head coach Dino Babers.

Shrader is an impressive prospect, a six-foot-four, 230 lb. dual-threat guy who made four starts for Mississippi State as a freshman with over 1,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards. Averaging over 125 yards rushing per contest, the first order for the Bobcats will be to limit Shrader’s production on runs or scrambles.

WR Taj Harris creates problems in the passing game and Syracuse will likely look to take some deep shots against one-on-one matchups against Ohio CBs.

Defense

The Orange struggled on defense in 2020, finishing 90th in FBS in points allowed with over 32 per game on average.

Getting everyone on the same page will be a critical issue for a defense facing a Bobcat offense filled with experience players, who should execute pretty well as a unit as a result. Ohio’s offensive personnel consists of about 8 players who are super seniors, seniors, or upperclassmen who have, for the most part, played a lot of football together.

Syracuse features a lot of youth on the back end of the defense, with seven starters at LB or DB being freshmen or redshirt freshman. While some of these freshmen did see the field last year but did not lose eligibility due to COVID, overall, these are still young players who will need to avoid making mistakes that can be exploited by an experienced Bobcat offense.

Special Teams

Syracuse should play solid special teams overall but one issue to watch, especially in a close game where field position is critical, is the debut of freshman punter James Williams. One never knows how a new punter will perform in games based off practice alone, until game pressure is factored in.


Prediction

Being at home is going to be big advantage in this one and the Bobcats should feed off the crowd’s energy and win a close game.

Ohio 31, Syracuse 24