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What we learned from Ohio heading into the 2022 conference schedule

These ‘Cats have claws. They just need to learn how to utilize them.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Ohio at Penn State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Bobcats (2-2) head into conference play with answers in some areas and a major question in another. We take a look at what we learned about Ohio heading into MAC season.

The Bobcats can hang their hats on the passing game most weeks of conference play

In our 2021 Ohio preview, we figured Kurtis Rourke would mature into one of the better MAC quarterbacks with full possession of the offense, and his play during non-conference season in 2022 shows he may be ready to take that step.

Rourke has had some big statistical games already this year, setting school records in Weeks 1 and 4 for most passing yards in a game with 345 (ninth all-time) and 537 (first), respectively.

Rourke is also at or near the top of the MAC in key statistical categories: first in completion percentage and yards, second in passing efficiency and touchdowns passes, etc.

Yet with a game against a squad like Fordham, who the Bobcats were expected to and did torch in the passing game, the stats may not be the best measure of growth.

What really stands out is Rourke’s overall command of the offense. It would be a difficult task to find areas where he is not excelling mentally and/or physically executing the offense.

Making problems worse for Ohio’s opponents are the targets available to Rourke.

The ‘Cats have a shot to be one of the top receiving corps in the MAC

The majority of MAC squads have some threats in either of the major passcatching positions (receiver and tight end), but when the Bobcats group is considered as a whole, it may prove to be one the MAC’s best this year.

The Bobcats have nine players with at least nine or more catches thus far in the 2022 season, including one of the best deep threats so far on the early season in James Bostic, whose 21.4 yards per catch is tops in the league.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Ohio at Penn State
Ohio WR James Bostic against Penn State
Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Possession guy Sam Wiglusz has 22 catches which is currently fifth best in the MAC.

Tight end Tyler Foster has really picked up steam in his first season as starter and is tied for third in the MAC with three TD catches. Foster’s one-handed grab fora touchdown last week against blanket coverage is one of the most athletic catches you will see a MAC tight end make this season. The catch can be seen at the 8:48 mark of the video here.

The six-foot-one, 220 lb. JUCO transfer Jacoby Jones had his coming out party last week with six catches for 104 yards and two scores.

Those passcatchers are all before discussing rising prospect Miles Cross or wily veteran Tyler Walton, showing the depth is there to really create defensive mismatches in four and five WR formations.

Running game can be productive if the running back room gets healthy

The Bobcats have the kind of offensive line and depth to be a factor in the ground game if their running back group can get healthy.

The offensive line looks set to pick up some yards. Last week LG Kurt Danneker returned for his first game since a week one injury in 2021 and looked impressive. Not only did Danneker help establish the running game but he made opponents look foolish in the passing game at times, like on the first drive when a blitzing linebacker bounced off of a set Danneker, falling on his backside.

Danneker, center Parker Titsworth, and right guard Hagen Meservy will anchor an interior line that can win many more battles than they lose, so the opportunities will be there. Danneker and Meservy may prove to be in the conversation of the best guard combo in the league by season’s end.

As injuries mount, the question becomes who will carry the ball? Against Fordham, Ohio’s sixth RB on the depth chart played significant snaps due to injuries. The good news for Ohio is that starter Sieh Bangura should return this week and one of the key backups like Nolan McCormack may also be able to return after it looked like he got dinged up in the 4th quarter last week.

Special Teams Gaining Momentum in Spots

Couple the recent success on kickoff return with a perfect start for FG team and the ‘Cats have some critical elements in special teams emerging heading into conference play.

Redshirt Sophomore WR/KR Keegan Wilburn, a local product who grew up about 15 miles from Peden Stadium, is getting his shot to play for his home team and is making the most of his opportunity. He and his teammates showed the 50-yard kickoff return against Iowa State in Week 3 was no fluke, sealing the deal last week with Wilburn’s 98-yard TD return.

In a third quarter when a lot did not go the ‘Cats way last week, the special teams score was absolutely a critical factor in the 59-52 win.

Meanwhile, the field goal team remains a perfect 5-5 on FGs and 13-13 on extra points.

Ohio had some adventures in the punt team a few weeks ago with some shanked punts but found a way to fix that in the short term by only punting once last week. In all seriousness, the Bobcats have some experienced punters on the roster and should be good to go in conference play.

The defense is a work-in-progress, and will need time to resolve itself

What the defense might be capable of in conference play is the biggest question as conference play begins. Through four games, the Bobcats are surrendering 44.8 points on average, which ranks 127th out of 131 FBS squads.

Part of that points allowed are obviously owing to the tough non-conference slate, playing teams like Penn State who is averaging almost 40 points a contest.

And despite being an FCS school, Fordham’s QB Tim DeMorat and WR Fotis Kokosioulis are players who will likely participate in pro camps next spring and summer, so some of the 52 points and big plays surrendered last week are understandable.

The obvious area of concern is the number of explosive pass plays against. Last week, the Rams often found favorable coverage matchups versus safeties and cashed in with alarming regularity. Kokosioulis alone had scoring receptions of 84, 74, 45, and 33 yards.

Ohio adjusted with different coverages and personnel and finally found the right combination in the fourth quarter, where the Rams only scored three points after the 28-point third quarter.

There is some optimism though that things will settle down in the secondary in MAC play due to some promising personnel and more familiarity with Nowinsky’s system, with third-team All-MAC safety Tariq Drake showing high level contributions.

The ‘Cats also have a couple of young and emerging defensive backs, both big factors in the end of the Fordham game last week. In his first year as starter, redshirt freshman Torrie Cox Jr. has stood out at times and could play his way into All-MAC status by the end of 2022. Cox Jr. switched positions in the 4th quarter last week and played a significant role in slowing Kokosioulis down.

CB Roman Parodie has made multiple pass break-ups in single coverage over the entirety of 2022, with several in clutch situations— including a game-winner against FAU and a late break-up preventing a potential Fordham touchdown last week. They’ll need Parodie to continue developing to counter deep or end zone passes down the line.

If Ohio can reduce the big passing plays, they have some elements of the defense that are working better than last year at this point.

On the plus side, Ohio has been much more effective this year in creating havoc in the passing game with nine sacks in four games compared with 17 all last season.

Also, the run defense on the whole has improved from last year by about 30 yards per game allowed on average. Outside the a few big runs by Penn State and one by Iowa State, the run defense has kept teams to manageable production.

The Bobcats will need to continue to make strides defensively to get off to a 1-0 start in conference as Kent State figures to give the Bobcats all they can handle when Ohio travels to Dix Stadium to take on the Golden Flashes on October 1st at 3:30pm Eastern.