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What We Learned from Ohio’s 24-17 win over Northern Illinois

The Bobcats did what they needed to do to continue keeping pace in a stiff MAC East race.

Ohio v Cincinnati Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Ohio (5-3, 3-1 MAC East) defended Frank Solich Field for the fourth time this year, extending their unbeaten streak on the home turf named after their former stalwart coach to 4-0. NIU (2-6, 1-3 MAC West) turned in a strong defensive effort against a talented Ohio offense, but couldn’t keep pace on the scoreboard late in the fourth quarter.

Here are our takeaways from this cross-divisional match-up:

Winning and losing by the margins define 2022 for the Huskies and ‘Cats

Heading towards midweek MACtion, a familiar story is unfolding in the standings for several MAC teams, including Ohio and NIU, based on whether they are winning or losing close games (defined as a game decided by one score or less).

The conference is competitive again in 2022, with half of MAC games (13 of 26) decided by one score or less.

For NIU and Ohio, they have flip-flopped fortunes from 2021 to 2022.

In NIU’s 2021 magical MAC championship run, they had an incredible 7-1 record in close games including wins over four teams (Toledo Central Michigan, Ball State, and Georgia Tech) by a combined five points.

If it can be said that a team is better than its record then there is no better example in the MAC in 2022, where NIU finds itself with a 2-6 overall standing, including a 1-4 record in close games. They also lost by a respectable ten points to SEC squad Vanderbilt. If NIU could have found a way to win just a few more of these close games in 2022, their bowl picture would be a lot more optimistic heading into the final stretch of the season.

Ohio reversed its fortunes by winning close games this year and not so much last year. In 2021, Ohio rode a 2-4 record in close games to a 3-9 record, whereas in 2022, Ohio is 3-1 in close games in route to a 5-3 record.

The close-game turnaround has the ‘Cats heading into November with bowl eligibility only one win away and the opportunity for a huge game against Buffalo to kick off weeknight games on Tuesday, Nov. 1, with the first place in the MAC East on the line.

The Benefits of Cleaner Living

A close win over NIU and a 3-1 MAC record in 2022 compared with a 1-3 record to start MAC play in 2021 is due in part to the Bobcats eliminating key mistakes.

Against NIU, Ohio’s zero turnovers and penalties helped the ‘Cats secure a one-score win. It was also the first time in the last 20 games Ohio had zero penalties.

So far in MAC play in 2022, Ohio has had a combined 127 penalty yards while committing 222 yards of infractions in 2021 over the same number of games.

More importantly, it’s been a major turnaround when it comes to ball security for Ohio, as the ‘Cats in ‘22 have had just two turnovers in the first four MAC games compared with six in the first four MAC games of 2021. In 2021, Ohio had at least one turnover in each of its first four games while having no turnovers in three of is first four MAC games in 2022.

Ohio’s Turnabout Defense

Ohio’s defense has been night and day different since MAC play started. In four non-conference games, Ohio allowed an average of 44.75 points per contest but have cut that in more than half during MAC play, averaging just 22.25 per game.

To some extent, it is to be expected due to the change in level of competition and facing some offenses in WMU and NIU which have had their troubles. For instance, Ohio’s biggest defensive issue in 2022 was probably passing defense, but the Bobcats were not tested as strongly against NIU in that area as the Huskies top two QBs didn't play.

That being said, take nothing away from a much improved Bobcat defensive unit, which, by many measures, are running amok on their MAC opponents’ offenses in recent weeks.

In the last three weeks versus Akron, WMU, and NIU, Ohio’s defense has amassed an incredible number of huge plays including 24 tackles-for-loss, 12 QB hurries, 11 pass break-ups, eight turnovers, seven sacks, and a touchdown.

For the first time since November 2020, Ohio’s defense has held back-to-back opponents to under 20 points a contest, limiting WMU to 14 points and NIU to 17 (Ohio gave up 10 points each to Akron and BGSU in 2020).

The last time Ohio held opponents to under 20 points two or more weeks in a row during a full season schedule was in October and November 2018 when the ‘Cats held BGSU, Ball State, and WMU to 14 points each.

While it was team defense that won the day against NIU, Ohio had some timely plays that got the win.

Kai Caesar has shown, albeit in a different way, that QB Kurtis Rourke is not the only one on the Bobcat roster with arm talent.

Over the past four weeks, Caesar has been clutch by getting his hand/arm on the ball. Against Kent State, Caesar’s blocked a FG attempt on the final play of regulation, sending the game to OT. Against WMU, Caesar’s partially blocked throw led to a tip-drill INT for his teammate. Last week versus NIU, Caesar stopped the Huskies on fourth and seven with just over a minute to go in the fourth quarter by deflecting another pass away from its target.

The DB unit also turned in a handful of game-changing plays which may have kept as many as 15 NIU points off the board. In the first half, safety Alvin Floyd was able to elude a blocker in the red zone and stop NIU QB Justin Lynch on a shoestring tackle which may have prevented a touchdown, with the Huskies ultimately settling for three.

To start the third quarter, Floyd was able to bat a ball away in the corner of the end zone to prevent a score with NIU settling for another field goal.

With the score 24-17 Bobcats in the fourth, cornerback Justin Birchette chased down Antario Brown from behind to prevent what would have been a 98-yard rushing touchdown. Given a second chance, the Bobcats held NIU scoreless on that critical late-game drive.

Kicking game sees improvement for both sides

Continuing on the theme of doing things right in close games, both squads have done some noteworthy things lately. After starting the season making only 50 percent of their field goals, NIU’s John Richardson has made all eight attempts in the last three weeks, including three versus Ohio that helped keep things close into the fourth quarter.

Ohio’s punt team had its best week of the season in net punting against NIU, giving its defense more than a first down’s worth of additional yards to work with over its season average. Ohio booted four punts last week for 180 yards allowing just three return yards for a net of 44.25. Coming into the contest, Ohio had been averaging about 31.7 net yards per punt per Ohio’s Jack Wilson and Jonah Wieland each had two punts for 90 yards.

Next Up

Both teams are off next Saturday but return to kick off #MACtion with Ohio hosting Buffalo (5-3, 4-0 MAC East) Tuesday, Nov. 1st at 7:30 ET in a showdown for first place in the East while Northern Illinois fights to keep bowl hopes alive at home with a matchup against Central Michigan (2-6, 1-3 MAC West) on Wednesday, Nov. 2nd at 7:00PM ET.