The Ohio Bobcats (8-3, 6-1 MAC East) won their sixth-straight game. notching a huge road win over the Ball State Cardinals (5-6. 3-4 MAC West) taking home a 32-18 victory to stay in first place in the MAC East division.
It was a physical battle by both squads, but the Bobcats won the game on the strength of a dominant rushing attack and a stingy defense that held an opponent under 20 points for the third time in four weeks. The defense was keyed by a ‘Cats secondary that played perhaps its best game of the year, with multiple turnovers, pass breakups, and a physical style of play.
Both defenses dominated early, logging three-and-outs on their first drives.
BSU avoided early disaster on its first drive as a strip by CB Justin Birchette on a third-down pass recovered by Ohio was ultimately ruled an incomplete pass instead of a fumble. Birchette was huge early on back-to-back drives, neutralizing drives with excellent coverage and several pass break-ups.
A running into the kicker penalty on its second drive gave BSU new life on fourth-and-five, and the Cardinals did not waste the opportunity, scoring the game’s first points on an 11-play, 78-yard drive with running back Carson Steele set up the 21-yard field goal by running around, though, and over the Bobcats for 59 yards on seven carries.
Not to be outshined by BSU’s ground game, the Bobcats took to the run on the next drive feeding running back Sieh Bangura eight times for 49 yards, capped by a six-yard run by Bangura for the score. Two key plays were a fourth-and-one converted by Bangura. Another was the type of resiliency the Bobcats have shown all year, overcoming a BSU sack on first down to convert a thrid-and-12 on a 13-yard pass to Jacoby Jones.
As the snow flurries continued into the second quarter, BSU went back to the run but Ohio committed numbers to the box and some blitzes, eventually creating a huge play. Coming off the edge, 166-pound cornerback Torrie Cox Jr. absolutely rocked 215-pound Steele, causing a fumble which Cox Jr. recovered at the Cardinal 42-yard line.
Ohio cashed in on its stellar defensive play, driving the 42 yards in short order on the back of a dominant rushing game capped off a 13-yard strike from quarterback Kurtis Rourke to Sam Wiglusz. The touchdown reception was the 10th of the year for Wiglusz, tying him for first in the MAC in 2022.
The Bobcat secondary continued its physical play when Alvin Floyd stopped the Cardinals in their tracks on third-and-six when the primary receiver was jammed to the ground, throwing off the timing of the pass play.
Ohio’s offense got a game-changing break late in the second quarter. With a 14-3 lead and driving inside the Ball State ten-yard line, Ball State stripped Bangura and recovered the fumble but the play did not stand due to a facemask call on the Cardinals. Unfazed by the misfortune, BSU’s defense rose up to stop Ohio on third and short, holding the ‘Cats to a 21-yard field goal.
As the second quarter clock wound down, disaster struck for both teams with injuries to star players on both sides and drive-killing turnovers.
Ohio’s defensive backs continued their stellar play, squelching a promising Cardinals drive late in the second quarter when Steele fumbled after being swarmed under by safety Tariq Drake and Birchette.
Carson Steele left for the locker room after hitting the turf hard from the Drake/Birchette tackle combination, adding injury to insult. Without Steele (and playing from behind on the scoreboard), the Cardinal rushed for minus three yards in the second half.
Ohio seemed poised to put the Cardinals in a major hole by moving the ball deep into BSU territory, but the drive came to a screeching halt when Kurtis Rourke was injured on a clean hit, taking a strange knock to the ground.
Rourke would eventually be sighted on the sidelines wearing a large knee brace and an ice pack on his leg, though an MRI alter this week should confirm how bad the damage is.
CJ Harris would come in to replace Rourke, but his introduction wouldn’t go smoothly; Harris and Bangura had crossed wires on a read-option mesh, resulted in a fumble which was recovered by Ball State in the redzone.
Both offenses were hampered without their stars, spending the majority of the third quarter adjusting to their new realities.
Ohio’s offense was still able to run the ball effectively in stretches, flipping the field to set up their only score of the third quarter.
Ohio was able to extend lead to 19-3 on a safety set up by a great punt by Jack Wilson, pinning BSU inside their one yard line. On the next play, defensive tackle Rodney Mathews swallowed the Cardinals’ runner in the middle of the endzone for the two points.
Late in the third, BSU took advantage of its starting field position at the Ohio 39 to get its first touchdown of the game. Quarterback John Paddock was sharp on the drive, getting his tight ends involved. Paddock first hit Brady Hunt for 21-yards and capped off the drive with a 10-yard strike to Tanner Koziol. The Cardinals narrowed the lead to one score at 19-11 with the two point conversion, a two-yard pass from Paddock.
Just when BSU grabbed momentum, Ohio’s offense found its footing in the fourth quarter, with back-to-back great plays by wideout Sam Wiglusz, On third-and -five, Wiglusz’s circus catch along the sideline got the ‘Cats a fresh set of downs. On the next play, Bangura exploded for a 41-yard run, bouncing it outside while Wiglusz sustained the perimeter block that sprung the Ohio runner for the long gain.
Ohio finished the drive with a seven yard run for score by Bangura to extend the lead to 26-11.
Bangura set a personal best in rushing yards for a game for the second week in a row with 148 against the Cardinals, surpassing the 145 yards he had last week against Miami.
As the game clock wound down late, the momentum changed hands multiple times before Ohio salted the game away.
BSU scored its second touchdown in as many drives, with Paddock hitting Hunt for a seven-yard score to pull within 26-18. The tight ends in the passing game played a huge roll in the second half success for the Cardinals with Koziol and Hunt combining for 14 catches for 134 yards and two scores.
Paddock was masterful for a good stretch of the second half finishing with 273 yards and two touchdown passes. Paddock showed a lot of toughness as he played through an obviously painful throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter that likely happened when he was tackled on a scramble.
As Ohio’s secondary had done most of the night though, they made a critical play to stop Ball State’s momentum. Down by eight with Paddock and company near midfield on a fourth-and-four late in the fourth quarter, Zack Sanders got his hand on a pass to create a turnover on downs. Sanders added another pass break up later in the game.
With the score 29-18 late in the fourth, Paddock went to the well once too often as he was intercepted by Alvin Floyd on a pass intended for Hunt.
Tonight’s win was a very important step for the Bobcats, who needed a win in the case of tiebreakers. It turned out to be a more important win than anticipated; in a game played concurrently in the Glass Bowl, Bowling Green shocked Toledo to keep pace with the ‘Cats, utilizing a 42-yard pass play from Matt McDonald to Ta’Ron Keith with nine seconds left to beat the Rockets, 42-35.
The enthusiasm of the ‘Cats victory was tempered by the loss of All-MAC quarterback Kurtis Rourke who suffered an apparent knee injury late in the second quarter and did not return. Rourke’s status for next week is unknown.
Rouke’s availability has obvious implications for the showdown with the Falcons next week.
Ohio wasn’t the only team in this game severely affected by injury. The Cardinals also lost their star runner Carson Steele, who has ran for over 100 yards eight times this season, late in the second half to a possible concussion, and could be out for BSU’s last attempt to attain bowl eligibility.
Boht teams looks forward to returning to the #MACtion spotlights one last time next week, with both teams playing at 7 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Placement on ESPNU or ESPN+ is to be determined for both contests at a later date.
Ohio hosts Bowling Green for the MAC East crown, while Ball State travels to Oxford, Ohio, looking for that sixth win and bowl-eligibility against the Miami RedHawks.