- Time and date: Saturday, August 26 at 7:00 p.m. ET
- Network: FS1
- Location: Snapdragon Stadium — San Diego, CA
- Spread: San Diego State (-2.5)
- Over/under: 49
- All-time series: Ohio leads, 1-0
- Last meeting: Ohio 27, San Diego State 0 — December 19, 2018 (Frisco Bowl)
- Current streak: Ohio, 1 (2018)
Setting the scene
The wait is over. College football is finally here.
The August Saturday designated as “Week 0” can invoke feelings in college football fans similar to that of Christmas morning, and that’s the beauty of sports. But it’s not usually the Mid-American Conference suiting up on this day. Rather, the MAC is somewhat a stranger to the concept of college football’s annual Week 0, as no league member has participated in the exclusive week since Miami (OH) in 2004.
The Ohio Bobcats will be the first MAC team to launch their 2023 season in perhaps the most compelling matchup of Week 0 — a road trip across three time zones to battle the San Diego State Aztecs. Ohio and San Diego State have only previously crossed paths at the 2018 Frisco Bowl when the Bobcats blanked the Aztecs in 27-0 fashion. Both head coaches have changed since, but a handful players still remain rostered on each squad.
Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego opens its gates for its second season, welcoming a nationally televised clash between two successful programs which have combined for just one losing season since 2010.
Ohio Bobcats outlook
The 2022 season didn’t exactly come with lofty preseason expectations, but it turned out to be one of the most prosperous in Ohio history. Fresh off the heals of their first losing season since 2008, the Bobcats completely rewrote their trajectory with a 10-4 record — tying their winningest season in history (1968 and 2011 also featured 10 victories). Ohio claimed the MAC East title and booked a trip to Detroit for the conference championship game and wound up winning the Arizona Bowl over Wyoming on a thrilling walk-off touchdown in overtime — the program’s sixth bowl win since 2011.
Head coach Tim Albin enters his third season at the helm with varying results in his first two. Albin served as a longtime assistant under Frank Solich, having a front row seat to all of Ohio’s success over the past decade plus. Now, he aims to attain a feat which hasn’t been done since the NFL-AFL merger was finalized: win the Bobcats’ first MAC championship since 1968.
The pieces to accomplish that long-awaited goal are certainly in place. Ohio is fronted by the reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year in Kurtis Rourke, who delivered 3,257 passing yards, 25 touchdowns, and four interceptions on a 69.1 percent completion rate last season. Unfortunately for Rourke, his dream season concluded prematurely as he suffered a torn ACL in a midweek November contest against Ball State. The First Team All-MAC quarterback missed the MAC Championship Game and Arizona Bowl and spent the majority of this offseason rehabbing from the brutal injury.
The good news for Ohio is that Rourke is ready to return Week 0, as first reported by ESPN’s Pete Thamel. Over half of Rourke’s starts featured more than 300 passing yards last year, so inflicting damage through the air should be the Bobcats’ primary offensive strength, as suggested by boasting the FBS’s 23rd ranked passing offense last fall.
Ohio’s offense also trots out the reigning MAC Freshman of the Year in Sieh Bangura, who ranked fourth in the conference in rushing yards (1,078) and third in rushing touchdowns (13) in his first season seeing significant action. Bangura made a statement in the opener last year and then heated up in November, where he saw three 130+ yard performances in his last five outings. The 6’0”, 209 pound tailback’s presence keeps Ohio’s offense multidimensional, operating as a perfect complement to Rourke and the passing game.
The Bobcats return a slew of Rourke’s favorite targets from the 2022 season, including Sam Wiglusz who was responsible for team-highs in receptions (73), receiving yards (877), and touchdowns (11). Last year, 11 Bobcats exceeded 30 receiving yards and 10 of them are back for 2023, only losing James Bostic to graduation. Other notable threats in the receiving game include Jacoby Jones (777 yards, 6 touchdowns in 2022), whose status could be up in the air due to injury, Miles Cross (560 yards, 3 touchdowns in 2022), and longtime contributor Tyler Walton, who was limited to four appearances last fall.
Ohio is also highly reliant on tight end usage, as the Bobcats prominently featured Will Kacmarek and Tyler Foster in their offense last season. Both tight ends are capable receivers and blockers, working as adept pieces beside the offensive line. The o-line, which paved the way for Bangura and ranked 50th in fewest sacks allowed, remains in stellar shape with four returning starters from 2022 — however, the line’s only All-MAC selection Hagen Meservy is the lone departure.
Watching Ohio on the defensive side was a journey last year, but the unit showed linear improvement as the season progressed. Through six games, the Bobcats yielded an average of 40.7 points, and 30 points were exceeded on the unit each time. In order to emerge victorious, those defensive woes required offensive explosions on Ohio’s end, which was even the case in a 59-52 thriller against Fordham of the FCS.
But everything clicked in mid-October, and in Ohio’s final eight outings, the defense didn’t surrender more than 24 points in regulation once, allowing 19 points per game over that span. The late-season defensive surge propelled the Bobcats to a 2-1 record in Rourke’s absence and kept the team competitive in the MAC Championship Game against Toledo.
Each of the two leading tacklers, inside linebacker Bryce Houston and outside linebacker Keye Thompson, return to the lineup in Ohio’s 4-2-5 defense. Thompson is the team’s lone 2022 All-MAC defensive selection on the roster for 2023, and he’ll look to build on a monstrous season which featured 96 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Houston was the team’s chief backfield invader, tying for the team-high in sacks with 5.5 in addition to 11 tackles for loss. Those two will be the focal point of the defense Saturday, aiming to limit the yardage of a ground-oriented San Diego State offense.
The defensive line is where the most rebuilding occurs, as key cogs defensive tackle Kai Caesar, All-MAC defensive end Jack McCrory, and tackles for loss leader Juan Watkins all moved on this offseason. Without gaining significant experience from the transfer portal, the Bobcats look to reload the trenches with incumbent players like Shane Bonner and Rayyan Buell — reserves expected to take on larger roles in 2023.
The Bobcats’ secondary is the position group which eyes the most improvement this fall. Ohio ranked sixth-to-last nationally in passing yards allowed per game at 286, and those yards were allowed in quite an efficient manner. Cornerback Torrie Cox Jr. is currently dealing with an injury and enters Saturday with unknown status, but his five forced turnovers and six pass breakups from 2022 could come in handy. San Diego State isn’t a renowned aerial juggernaut, but the Bobcats still need the likes of Justin Birchette to step up at cornerback Saturday to ensure the road trip ends with a 1-0 record.
San Diego State Aztecs outlook
San Diego State enters year four of the Brady Hoke era and the program continues to sustain its winning ways from Rocky Long’s impressive tenure. Last year concluded in rough fashion, however, as the 7-6 Aztecs dropped their home finale to Air Force and Hawaii Bowl to Middle Tennessee, carrying a two-game skid into their 2023 opener.
But the slate has been wiped clean and San Diego State launches 2023 with the luxury of hosting a MAC school in the August climate of Southern California. The Aztecs have seven encounters with the MAC in the past decade, and the result usually favors the Mountain West program as suggested by its 6-1 record. In fact, Ohio is the only current MAC member to ever defeat San Diego State as the Aztecs are 10-1-1 against the league all-time. Hoke and his players aim to improve upon that record in this Week 0 battle with Ohio, hoping to initiate their opening three-game home-stand in promising fashion.
Despite living in a period of automatic bowl trips and annual Mountain West contention status, San Diego State’s scoring offense has not cracked the upper 50th percentile since 2017. Last year’s Aztecs ranked 108th nationally with 21.5 points per contest, yet the team still generated four offensive All-Mountain West selections.
Of those four showered with this prestigious honor, two return to the lineup — left guard Cade Bennett and tight end Mark Redman. Bennett leads an offensive line which holds the title for more experienced position group on the roster, keeping three starters including right guard Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli and right tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dixon. The No. 1 mission of San Diego State’s offensive line involves quality run blocking, as the Aztecs run a “pound the rock, control the clock” style offense. They ranked third in the Mountain West in time of possession, only trailing Air Force’s triple option attack and Fresno State in the statistic.
San Diego State must break in a new lead running back this year with previous starter Jordan Byrd testing the waters of the NFL. There are several viable options who earned a handful of carries in 2022 including Kenan Christon (71 rushes, 261 yards), Jaylon Armstead (52 rushes, 213 yards), and Cam Davis (46 rushes, 151 yards). Even when Byrd was on campus, the Aztecs utilized a running back by committee approach so expect the wealth to be well distributed between the trio in the opener.
Another viable rusher in the offense is quarterback Jalen Mayden, who ranked third on the team in yardage a year ago. Mayden took over the starting quarterback role from Braxton Burmeister last October and retained it for the final eight matchups, posting a 5-3 record. Mayden, a former Mississippi State commit, accumulated 2,030 passing yards on a 59.5 percent completion clip with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first major hint of collegiate experience. Now with valuable playing time under his belt, Mayden enters his first season as No. 1 on the depth chart, hoping to improve a San Diego State passing attack which ranked 117th in output in 2022.
It will be a new cast of characters responsible for that improvement in the receiver room as players like Tyrell Shavers and Jesse Matthews no longer grace the campus. The only wide receiver on the roster to obtain more than 12 receptions or 170 yards last season was Mekhi Shaw, who should mold into the No. 1 option. Shaw corralled 29 receptions for 349 yards (third on the team) and three touchdowns a year ago, and he’ll look for teammates such as Josh Nicholson, Brionne Penny, and Phillippe Wesley II to step up production alongside him.
San Diego State is always renowned for its defensive prowess, which has been the foundation of success in both the Rocky Long and Brady Hoke eras. The Aztecs run a 3-3-5 base, but are very multiple on defense, presenting a variety of looks throughout a single game.
The program seeks its fifth consecutive season fielding a top 20 scoring defense — a category San Diego State hasn’t finished below 32nd in since 2013. The Aztecs suffocated opponents to 19.5 points per game in 2022 with a specialty for stifling the run, surrendering below 114 yards per outing on a 3.4 average.
Almost every aspect of the defense could be defined as quality. San Diego State tied for 24th in the nation in sacks produced per contest at 2.77 and the team defended the pass and generated turnovers at above-average levels. More than half of the Aztecs’ opponents logged 14 points or fewer, including MAC champion Toledo, but the unit wasn’t completely impenetrable as it was subject to four 30-point outbursts in 2022 — coming from Pac-12 opponents Arizona and Utah as well as Mountain West Championship Game participants Boise State and Fresno State.
This year’s group retains less than half of its 2022 starters and loses all three First Team All-Mountain West selections (Jonah Tavai, Caden McDonald, and Patrick McMorris), as well as Second Team honoree Michael Shawcroft — the Aztecs’ leader in total tackles. Each of the top three tacklers — which additionally include McMorris and Tavai — are gone, leaving free safety Cedarious Barfield as the returning leader in that category.
In order to sustain the tradition of defensive excellence, several Aztecs are required to fulfill significant vacancies. At linebacker, Cooper McDonald must fill in for his older brother Caden. Cooper is a prime candidate for a breakout season after earning six starts in 2022, complete with 41 tackles, five tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks. Another player expected to transition to a full-time starting role is defensive end Garret Fountain, who registered six tackles for loss and three sacks as a reserve last year. Since all four players who accumulated 3.5 or more sacks in 2022 left, Fountain is granted a golden opportunity to become the defense’s new premier pass rusher.
San Diego State often features five defensive backs roaming on a given play, consisting of two cornerbacks, two safeties, and the signature “Aztec” position which often lines up in the middle as a free safety/linebacker hybrid. The “Aztec” designation will likely go to an inexperienced player as sophomore Max Garrison (two career tackles) and true freshman Marcus Ratcliffe are among the likely suitors. But the featured player to watch in the secondary is Dez Malone, who started the most games at cornerback on the team last year and earned an All-Mountain West honorable mention nod with 43 tackles and three interceptions.
The premier question heading into this game asks, how healthy is Kurtis Rourke? ACL tears take varying times to recover, and Rourke relies heavily on movement about the pocket. His legs produced 245 rushing yards and four touchdowns last year, and if he is anywhere near full strength, Ohio’s offense can return to the gear it enjoyed prior to mid-November 2022.
Ohio has developed into an aerial-dominant offense under Rourke, but Sieh Bangura’s commanding presence, bolstered by a veteran offensive line, should keep San Diego State’s defense honest Saturday evening. The Aztecs lost an abundance of stars on defense, and while they’ve been a well-oiled machine in replacing talent in the past, this opener could present some challenges breaking in six new starters — similar to the defensive challenges observed in the 38-20 Week 1 loss to Arizona last fall.
San Diego State must bank on its typically-reliable defense to record routine stops against Rourke and Co., because it will be challenging for its offense to match Ohio’s explosiveness otherwise. The Bobcats match up well against the Aztecs by showcasing a potent passing attack and a pair of linebackers equipped to stop the run — the perfect recipe to owning a 1-0 record before the majority of college football even commences.
Prediction: Ohio 28, San Diego State 17