Ohio (6-3. 4-1 MAC East) soundly beat Buffalo (5-4. 4-1 MAC East) by a final score of 45-24 on Tuesday night to claim the division lead with three games left to play. With the win, the Bobcats remain undefeated on Frank Solich Field at 5-0, and join Toledo as the second bowl-eligible team in the conference.
Ohio started the contest with a bang, opening their first offensive drive with a 22-yard pass from Kurtis Rourke to Sam Wiglusz and cashing the drive in with another Rourke-to-Wiglusz connection over the outstretched arm of Keyshawn Cobb from 16 yards out to take the early 7-0 lead.
Ohio’s defense also got off to a fast start, forcing three-and-outs on the Bulls opening two drives. The first Buffalo drive stalled when Ohio’s Torrie Cox Jr. passed his first test of the day on a deep throw in single coverage, effectively keeping the Buffalo wideout from catching the ball.
On Buffalo’s second drive, Bobcat linebacker Bryce Houston cashed in on a coverage sack of Bulls’ QB Cole Snyder. Houston added a sack in the fourth quarter to finish with two on the day.
Ohio put together another balanced drive on its second possession for three points, keyed by a 18-yard scamper by Rourke and a 16-yard counter by running back Jake Neatherton with right guard Hagan Meservy and tight end Will Kacmarek pulling to lead the way.
On the Bulls third drive, disaster struck on back-to-back plays when QB Snyder was sacked then was intercepted by Ohio All-MAC safety Tariq Drake when attempting a throw back across the field.
The ‘Cats converted its good fortune quickly, hitting paydirt on a five-play, 42-yard drive keyed by another big play from Rourke to Wiglusz, a 32-yard pass on third and four to set up a five-scoring toss from Rourke to wideout Jacoby Jones.
Down 17 points, the Bulls bounced back early in the second quarter, converting a ten-play drive for three points. Bulls QB Snyder shook off the earlier interception to hit five of his next six passes. The Bobcats stiffened in the red zone, keyed by a third and ten play where safety Alvin Floyd knocked away a pass in the endzone to hold Buffalo to a 28-yard field goal by Alex McNulty.
The Bulls momentum was short-lived.
After trading punts, Ohio’s domination of the Buffalo defense continued with another touchdown on a 62-yard drive capped by a 12-yard touchdown pass to Wiglusz. Another big play on the drive was a 49-yard strike from Rourke to Wiglusz.
Building a 24-3 lead late in the second quarter, the Bobcats good fortunes began to unravel on a few big plays that got the Bulls back in the game.
With just over a minute in the half, Buffalo got a much-needed break when Ohio shanked a 20-yard punt, giving the Bulls the ball at the Bobcat 35-yard line. Buffalo’s QB Snyder wasted no time getting its first touchdown of the half, a 12-yard pass to wide receiver Justin Marshall. The Bulls wideout made a tough, one-handed catch while being interfered with to haul in the score.
Seeking a repeat of last week’s win over Toledo, the Bulls turned to its opportunistic defense to try to overcome a significant halftime deficit. The Bulls opened the second half with a pick six by Keyshawn Cobb to close the gap to 24-17.
Showing the same resiliency that Bulls QB Snyder demonstrated after his interception, Rourke bounced back from the pick six, engineering a 75-yard drive capped by a two-yard touchdown to wideout Miles Cross.
Cobb turned in another huge play in the third quarter as he squelched a promising Ohio drive by forcing a fumble which was recovered by safety Marcus Fuqua.
The Bulls offense converted the turnover into a touchdown, a 56-yard drive culminating in a two-yard pass from Snyder to running back Mike Washington.
Although the Bulls made it a game, the comeback was not to be.
The Bobcats defense turned in perhaps its best performance of the year in the fourth quarter, giving the Bulls a dose of its own medicine when a strip sack by Ohio defensive tackle Kai Caesar was recovered by Jack McCrory at the Bulls 12-yard line.
Ohio quickly converted the short field provided by Caesar with a touchdown pass from Rourke to Miles Cross, extending the lead to an insurmountable 45-24.
The Bobcats’ defense was much more impressive than the score might indicate, playing lights out at all levels of the defense for most of the game. The surging squad continued terrorizing MAC opponents this year, finishing this game with an astounding 12 quarterback hits, nine tackles-for-loss, six sacks, and three forced fumbles and an interception.
During MAC play, Keye Thompson is arguably playing as well as any linebacker in the conference, finishing the contest with 11 tackles, two quarterback pressures, and a fumble recovery. Ohio safety Alvin Floyd has continued his notable play in the past few weeks, with multiple pass break ups and a forced fumble against the Bulls.
The Rourke-to-Wiglusz connection torched the Bulls throughout the first half, with Wiglusz finishing with six catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns on the day. Rourke completed 69 percent of his passes for 317 yards and five touchdown passes, adding 45 yards on the ground. Rourke’s five touchdown passes were the most since 2008, when quarterback Boo Jackson had the same number.
Also notable for Ohio’s offense was the return of starting left tackle Jay Amburgey, who had missed several weeks of MAC play with an injury. Running backs Neatherton and Julian Ross also returned for their first action in several weeks after recovering from injuries, with Neatherton scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter on a short run.
Neatherton, starting in place of the injured Sieh Bangura, led the Bobcats on the day with 52 yards rushing.
MACtion resumes next week, as Ohio travels to rival Miami RedHawks while Buffalo looks to bounce back on the road against Central Michigan.