The Bobcats (8-3, 6-1 MAC East) keep their division title hopes in their control with a hard-fought win over Ball State (5-6, 3-4 MAC West). Ohio is MAC East champs if they beat Bowling Green at home next week.
Ball State will look to regroup for a big game in Oxford against rival Miami RedHawks for the Red Bird Rivalry Trophy. The game will determine who is bowl-eligible as both Miami and Ball State need this game to get the qualifying sixth win of the season.
But before we preview those matchups, a look a our takeaways from this one.
The Bobcats defensive transformation over the course of the Mid-American Conference schedule has been nothing short of remarkable.
Sure, things like moving beyond a tough non-conference slate for more equal MAC competition and playing complementary football have helped the defense but there is more happening here than that as they look to be coming together as a unit.
In Weeks 4 through 6, Ohio worked through some things. In Week 4, the Bobcats surrendered 640 yards and 52 points to the Fordham Rams. In Week 5, the ‘Cats surrendered 736 yards to Kent State and 24 points in regulation. In Week 6, Ohio adopted a bend-don’t-break style against Akron’s very good passing attack allowing 478 yards and 34 points.
For the last five games, Ohio’s defense has been very stingy and explosive. For example, the most total yards in a game allowed since the Akron game is 377 with a low of 260. In four of the last five weeks, the ‘Cats have held opponents to under 20 points a game and less than 100 yards net rushing.
Ohio continued to take the ball away from its opponents, stealing three more away from Ball State to bring its total in the last five weeks to 12 turnovers, equaling the Bobcat season total from 2021.
We talked about the front seven in prior weeks but where the defense improvement stands out the most over the last few weeks is on the back end, where a relatively healthy secondary turned in perhaps its most impressive game of the year against the Cardinals.
The unit as a whole was effective for a lot of the game with some great individual efforts too. Cornerback Justin Birchette seems to be making more impact plays over the course of MAC play with two key pass breakups early in the game on third down to thwart early Cardinal drives.
Torrie Cox Jr. also continues developing into a major factor against the pass and run. Cox Jr. finished with seven stops against the Cardinals including a clean shot on future first team, All-MAC back Carson Steele that not only stopped the great runner in his tracks but dislodged the ball which Cox Jr. recovered. Cox Jr. added another stick on third and four in the third quarter to force a Ball State punt.
Safety Alvin Floyd has been particularly noticeable the last three or so weeks, coming up with perhaps his best week statistically against the Cardinals leading the defense with 12 tackles and an interception.
With Steele out for the second half and down 19-3, the Cardinals turned to the passing game where Ohio defensive back Zack Sanders was a significant factor with three pass breakups in the fourth quarter to help preserve the win. Two pass breakups were on third down and one on fourth to stop a drive with five minutes left.
If Ohio can continue its play on the back end coupled with the front seven, they will be tough to beat down the stretch.
It wasn’t the Cardinals night on Tuesday but there is a lot to look forward to in the weeks ahead and next season.
Offensively, the Cardinals battled hard against a tough Bobcat defense and showed good signs from a young group.
While true sophomore Carson Steele surrendered his first two fumbles of the year, the Cardinals’ runner otherwise was impressive as advertised. Coming into the game versus Ohio, Steele put up almost 400 yards rushing against Kent State and Toledo and had 96 versus the ‘Cats prior to being sidelined late in the first half with an injury.
Taking to the air in the second half, the Cardinals showed once again this season that their tight end group is on the rise.
Redshirt freshman Brady Hunt, a former quarterback turned tight end, continues to play his way towards an All-MAC nod in just his first season as a starter. Hunt’s career best nine catches for 90 yards and a score helped Ball State keep within striking distance of the Bobcats on the scoreboard. Hunt’s work against Ohio brings his 2022 totals to 43 catches and five scores, while his 476 yards leads all MAC tight ends.
True freshman TE Tanner Koziol was also stood out against Ohio with five catches for 52 yards. Koziol continues to be one of the MAC’s best scoring threats at his position, leading all MAC tight ends with seven touchdown receptions.
Quarterback John Paddock led the Cardinals to two second half touchdowns, showing leadership in the process, rallying his players on the sidelines. Paddock also showed toughness by playing through obvious pain in the fourth quarter of what look like an injury around his throwing shoulder.
Beating Miami next week would be huge for the Cardinals not only for bowl eligibility as a reward for a solid season but with the extra practice and game experience important to a developing squad. There is no word at the time of this writing if Carson Steele will be available to return after suffering a head injury versus the Bobcats.
One of the big factors in the outcome in this one and for the fortunes of both teams this season is obviously turnovers.
Ohio enjoyed a 3-1 turnover advantage in the game which was critical in the 14-point win.
The plus two turnover advantage for the Bobcats brings their season totals to about a 2:1 turnover ratio with 20 gained and only 11 lost.
The Cardinals continue to struggle in this area occasionally, with a loss to the Bobcats and a 20-16 loss to Eastern Michigan impacted by turnovers, with three in each contest.
On the year, Ball State has given five more away than it has earned, losing 19 while gaining 14.
“Next Man Up” Helps Keep It Going
As the season has gone on through MAC play, depth has been tested in the defensive backfield as well as at running back and offensive line. Ohio has certainly turned to the “next man up” to help keep its six-game win streak going.
Against the Cardinals, Ohio went to the reserves again when quarterback Kurtis Rourke went down at the end of the first half with a knee injury. Redshirt sophomore CJ Harris came into the contest with game experience limited to a few mop-up jobs over the past few years.
After a fumble at the mesh point on his first play late in the opening half, Harris settled in and helped guide the Bobcats to the win. In the second half, Harris operated turnover-free, looking comfortable and helped keep enough drives going to get the win.
A critical play was a 22-yard pass to Sam Wiglusz who made a nice catch to convert a third-and-five which eventually led to a touchdown. Another big play was a 20-yard run by Harris leading to a field goal.
Harris clearly has the type of dual-threat skill set that will allow him to operate the Bobcat offense. Ohio ran a fair amount of options and screen passes with a few shots down the field sprinkled in.
Harris may be called upon to quarterback the ‘Cats to a MAC title next week against Bowling Green if Rourke can’t go, and turnover-free football like Harris played in second half against Ball State would go a long way to getting things done.
As of this time, it is unclear if Rourke could go next week. Head coach Tim Albin indicated at the weekly press conference Rouke was “able to put weight on it”, with no sweeling or crutches, but that the team won;t be sure until later in the week.
A final note on depth is about the contribution of offensive tackle redshirt sophomore Jacob Dennison this season. The Jacksonville State transfer in his first year with the ‘Cats has helped to pick up the slack at left and right tackle throughout the season due to injuries. Versus the Cardinals, Dennison came in for an injury at right tackle and contributed on a few key scoring drives in the second half.
Both teams close out the regular season next Tuesday, November 22nd at 7:00 p.m. Eastern with the Bobcats in the national spotlight against Bowling Green on ESPNU, while the Cardinals rivalry game can be seen on ESPN+.