After a massively disappointing 2021 season, the Ohio Bobcats (9-3, 7-1 MAC) are back in the MAC Football Championship Game as winners of the East Division. Down the stretch, the Bobcats controlled its own destiny and secured the bid with a dominating 38-14 win over Bowling Green in the final week of the season.
This is the fifth time Ohio has had the opportunity to play in Detroit for the MAC, but the first time they have to go through the Toledo Rockets. Since 2001, these two teams have played sparingly, only suiting up seven times. The most recent tilt between the two was in 2021, a 35-23 Toledo victory. Toledo has owned this in-state battle 32-21-1 since the two programs first faced off in 1925.
Ohio is red-hot coming into this game and has a seven-game win streak going. They’re going up against a Toledo team that is reeling. The Bobcats will still have to play its best brand of football if it wants to capture its first MAC Football Championship since 1968.
The Ohio football program was put in a tough spot last year as legendary coach, Frank Solich, retired in July ahead of the season. After 16 years at the helm in Athens, the then-77-year-old Solich retired to focus on his health, and Associate Head Coach Tim Albin was tabbed as the new leader.
2021 was a year to forget for the rookie coach as his team finished just 3-9 and secured the program’s first losing season since 2008. Following that, the Bobcats made 10 bowl games between 2009 and 2019. Albin had moderate expectations for what the ‘Cats could reasonably accomplish— though his expectations were perhaps higher than what media expected; Ohio was picked to finish fourth in the MAC East without a single first-place vote.
Heading into this year, Ohio was feeling a little better about itself. It was going to be getting back stud running back O’Shaan Allison, Kurtis Rourke was starting to develop, and the defense was going to be led by veterans. Unfortunately, Allison was lost for the season with a shoulder injury, so they were already starting off on a bad foot.
The non-conference slate for Ohio was considered to be middle of the pack, but it was headlined by a Big Ten foe with whom the Bobcats have some history. Before taking on Penn State, Ohio needed to battle Florida Atlantic.
The Bobcats were able to take care of business against the Owls in a game that was as close as the 41-38 score suggests. Bobcats were outgained by the Owls, 478-476, but Rourke shined. He threw for 345 yards and four touchdowns while completing 79.4 percent of his passes. It was an explosive start to the season that had Bobcats' hopes sky-high.
And then they crashed back down to Earth.
After dropping their contests to Penn State, 46-10, and Iowa State, 43-10, Ohio was looking to right the ship against FCS-level Fordham and get some momentum heading into MAC play. It was not as easy as the Bobcats would have liked. After leading 17-7, Fordham ended up trading punches and even got ahead, 49-38 after an 84-yard touchdown. But the Bobcats clawed their way back behind Rourke’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns, with Rourke tossing the game-winner with just 0:52 to go.
While they may have righted the ship, it was still riddled with holes, which Kent State exploited. In its first taste of MAC play in 2022, Ohio fell to its in-state rival, 31-24 in overtime. The Flashes did just about anything and everything they wanted to do on offense, outgaining the Bobcats, 736-450. The only reason Ohio was in this game was the two turnovers they forced but Marquez Cooper and his 240 yards and two touchdowns would not be denied.
At this point, Ohio was 2-3 and struggling to stop anyone. They were allowing 577 yards and 42 points per game. It looked like the year was heading downhill fast and they were staring at getting left out of bowl mania yet again. But the game against Akron was where it all changed.
Rourke had his most efficient day of the year, going 24-of-27 with 427 yards and three touchdowns. Ohio and Rourke had had efficient, stellar games leading up to this point but this one was different. The ship was righted, the holes patched, and the sails were full of wind.
Following the Akron game, Ohio had to face off against a pair of West Division opponents in Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. The offense was held a bit more in check against the Broncos, but the defense came up big, holding WMU to just 14 points. Rourke was held off of the stat sheet but freshman kicker Nathaniel Vakos came up big, converting all three extra points and making four of his five field goal attempts, none bigger than his 55-yarder at the buzzer at the end of the first half.
Ohio then dispatched the preseason pick to win the MAC, Northern Illinois, in a 24-17 defensive battle that featured a grand total of zero turnovers. If you like special teams, this was the game for you!
Riding a three-game win streak, it was time to face off against a Buffalo team on a five-game stream themselves. A loss to Holy Cross notwithstanding, this Bulls team was plowing its way through its MAC slate, outscoring opponents by an average of 37-20, and just came off of a massive comeback against Toledo. The Bobcats stood tall, holding a Buffalo offense that averaged 384 yards per game to just 260. The key was on the ground. Buffalo averaged 167.2 yards per game on the ground against non-Ohio teams. Ohio held them to just 22.
Now, riding a four-game win streak, Ohio needed to get through back-to-back road games in Midweek #MACtion, starting with the preseason pick to win the East, Miami (OH). This game was all Bobcats, all day. Even though they allowed Brett Gabbert to complete 20-of-26 for 244 yards and three touchdowns (with no turnovers at all), Ohio had this game controlled from the start. Redshirt freshman running back Sieh Bangura set a then-career best with 145 yards on the ground to go with a score.
Bangura backed that game up with a new career-best 148 yards with two touchdowns the following week in a 31-18 win over Ball State. Rourke ended up going down with a torn ACL and meniscus toward the end of the first half, so RS sophomore CJ Harris had to step in and led the Bobcats to another victory. This Ohio offense was different with Rourke, so Harris had massive shoes to fill with one game left to clinch the MAC East.
Ohio hosted Bowling Green with both teams eyeing a MAC East title in the final week. Bowling Green was looking good to that point, just coming off of a massive win over Toledo in the Battle of I-75. After giving up the game’s first score to Tryone Broden, Ohio rattled off 38 unanswered points and allowed a garbage time touchdown to secure the division, 38-14.
After a rocky start to the season, Ohio is flying high. They have an offense that is clicking and a suffocating defense that will challenge Toledo, no matter if it will be Dequan Finn or Tucker Gleason at quarterback. It has been 54 years since Ohio could call itself MAC Champions. They are just 60 minutes away from their 10th win - which would be the first time since 2011 - and its 12th conference championship (sixth MAC).
Players to watch
The flavor of this game is entirely different due to the injury to Kurtis Rourke. Instead, Ohio’s fate hinges on the play of CJ Harris. Harris is not quite the passer that Rourke is but he makes up for it with his rushing ability. Against Bowling Green in the only significant outing of his young career, Harris threw for 196 yards and a touchdown while completing just 10 of his 21 attempts. On the ground, however, Harris was the second-leading rusher with 65 yards and three touchdowns off of 12 attempts. This offense is going to rely on Harris’ big 6’3” frame to get them through this game.
Beside Harris in the backfield and taking the load off is redshirt freshman running back Sieh Bangura. Bangura was thrust into the spotlight with the injury to O’Shaan Allison in the offseason and he has impressed. On the year, he’s run for 884 yards and 11 touchdowns off of 177 attempts. He burst onto the scene with a 114-yard game at the beginning of the season against FAU. Bangura is averaging over 100 yards per game in MAC play thanks to his massive games against Miami and Ball State
We would be remiss to not mention the team’s leading receiver, Sam Wiglusz. Wiglusz, a former walk-on at Ohio State, transferred to Ohio before this year and has dominated. After studying for three years under multiple first-round NFL Draft picks, Wiglusz came to Ohio and has recorded 11 touchdowns and 814 yards off of 66 receptions. On three occasions, Wiglusz crossed the century mark in yards and scored two touchdowns. Coming into Conference Championship Weekend, Wiglusz is tied for sixth-best in the nation with his 11 scores.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ohio has playmakers all over the field. Leading the way with him 96 tackles is fifth-year senior linebacker, Keye Thompson. After so many years and not playing at all last year, Thompson has been given a shot and he’s made the most of it. In addition to his 96 tackles, Thompson recorded 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and an interception. He came up huge in the game against Northern Illinois where he led the way with 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss.
Behind Thompson are a pair of very productive corners, Zack Sanders and Tariq Drake. Sanders is a very solid corner for the Bobcats and was a big reason why the Bobcats’ defense stymied the Western Michigan Broncos. He finished the game with a pair of interceptions and a sack. Drake, on the other hand, had his massive day just last week against Bowling Green, picking off Matt McDonald twice.
Against an offense as potentially potent as Toledo’s, Ohio’s defense will have to continue to play well. Jerjuan Newton is the real deal. Dequan Finn was not 100 percent in the Rockets’ loss to WMU last week, but if he can go, he’s a problem. This Bobcats defense is ready and has the ability to take care of business.
- Scoring Offense: 34.0 points per game (30th in FBS)
- Passing Offense: 265-for-399 (66.4 percent), 3,547 yards, 26 touchdowns, four interceptions, 8.89 yards per attempt, 13.38 yards per completion, 295.6 yards per game (14th in FBS)
- Rushing Offense: 426 carries for 1,703 yards, 21 touchdowns, 4.0 yards per carry, 141.9 yards per game (81st in FBS)
- Red Zone Offense: 55-of-62 (88.7 percent); 38 touchdowns (20 rush, 18 pass), 17 field goals (29th in FBS)
- First Downs: 257 first downs (151 pass, 93 rush, 13 penalty) (54th in FBS)
- Conversion Rates: 66-of-158 (41.8 percent) on third downs (t-43rd in FBS); 6-for-15 (40 percent) on fourth downs (t-105th in FBS)
- Scoring Defense: 29.3 points per game (96th in FBS)
- Passing Defense: 299-for-456 (65.6 percent), 3,664 yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 305.3 yards per game (131st/last in FBS)
- Rushing Defense: 381 attempts for 1,632 yards, 16 touchdowns, 4.28 yards per carry, 136.0 yards per game (t-42nd in FBS)
- Sacks/Tackles for Loss: 31.0 sacks for 219 yards, averaging 2.58 sacks per game (t-32nd in FBS); 76.0 tackles for loss for 335 yards, averaging 6.3 TFLs per game (t-39th in FBS)
- Red Zone Defense: 41-of-46 (89.1 percent), 30 touchdowns (16 pass, 14 rush), 11 field goals (t-110th in FBS)
- Opponent First Downs: 273 first downs (169 pass, 81 rush, 23 penalty) (t-108th in FBS)
- Opponent Conversion Rates: 56-for-149 (37.6 percent) on third downs (60th in FBS); 13-for-32 (40.6 percent) on fourth downs (23rd in FBS)
Kicking: 19-for-22 (86.4 percent) (25th in FBS); long of 55 yards (t-4th in FBS)
Punting: 47 punts for 1740 yards, averaging 37.0 yards per punt (129th in FBS)
Returning: 48 kickoff returns, 894 yards, one touchdown, 18.62 average (93rd in FBS); 11 punt returns, 26 yards, 0 touchdowns 2.36 average (129th in FBS)