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Rourke goes down in opener, Ohio stumbles in 20-13 defeat at San Diego State

Without their star QB, Bobcats were held out of the end zone until the final two minutes in San Diego.

NCAA Football: Ohio at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Snapdragon Stadium opened its gates for its second season in recognition of the college football’s annual event known as “Week 0.”

Students decked in red and black filed in, the art of tailgating returned in triumphant fashion, and players funneled in through the stadium tunnels for the first time this fall — all for the non-conference clash between the San Diego State Aztecs and visiting Ohio Bobcats. It was the earliest launch date of a football season in Mid-American Conference history, as Ohio became the first team from the league to participate in Week 0 since 2004.

Fresh off the winningest season in program history, the Bobcats couldn’t jump to 1-0 in San Diego. Star quarterback Kurtis Rourke suffered an injury in the first quarter, and San Diego State’s defense reigned supreme in a 20-13 low-scoring bout — highlighted by a 3-1 advantage in the turnover battle.

“I’m obviously disappointed this evening,” Ohio head coach Tim Albin said. “We can’t have those types of mistakes in a tight ball game. Their defense, their front seven is really good. Turnovers, we can’t have that. But I’ll tell you, our team battled to the very end. I really thought coming out of halftime we were gonna be fine. We’ve been in those games before, and we just didn’t make enough plays at the end to get it done.”

The Bobcats nearly spurred a late comeback when wide receiver Miles Cross registered their first touchdown of the season with 1:59 left to slice the deficit to 20-13. Even after failing to recover the onside kick, Ohio earned one last stab on offense as its defense suffocated San Diego State on four consecutive runs. But the comeback effort was formally denied 33 yards from glory when Aztec linebacker New Zealand Williams corralled the game-sealing interception in the waning seconds of the contest.

“Last year, there were three games that we got beat because we didn’t finish,” San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke said. “That’s one of the things we’ve talked about. We have to finish everything we’re doing. We did finish tonight, which is a positive. I don’t know if I liked the way we finished, but we got a big work week ahead of us and another opponent. We’re going to get out there and go to work.”

Entering Saturday, all eyes were on Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke, who made his highly-anticipated return in San Diego. The reigning MAC Offensive Player of the Year suffered a torn ACL in November and missed the final three contests of the year, but he progressed enough to earn the Week 0 starting gig. Rourke didn’t miss a beat from last season, consistently demonstrating tremendous placement by completing 8-of-10 passes for 75 yards. But on the final play of the first quarter, all momentum came to a screeching halt as the star quarterback took a brutal sack on a MIKE linebacker blitz by Zyrus Fiaseu.

Rourke remained still on the field for roughly a minute and eventually jogged off on his on power, but with a slight limp. He made his way to the injury tent and never returned, causing CJ Harris — the starter of Ohio’s final three games of 2022 — to provide relief duties. Albin provided a postgame update on Rourke’s status.

“Kurtis wanted to go back in. We’re gonna go back to Athens and get him checked out a little bit closer — an X-ray maybe, but I’m not too concerned about it at this time,” Albin said. “He’s upset with us. He wanted to play. We’re just playing it safe and taking it a day at a time.”

Albin did not confirm the nature of the injury, but stated the X-ray “will not be on the leg.”

Harris’ evening was off to a rocky start, as he tossed an interception on his first snap. The 2022 Arizona Bowl MVP eventually settled into the role, moving Ohio’s offense downfield with a career-high 203 passing yards. The Bobcats even out-gained the Aztecs under Harris’ reign, outdueling the Mountain West squad 380-309 in that department. But trailing for the entirety of the second half, the backup was relied upon to an overwhelming extent, as he delivered 42 passing attempts and finished the night with 18 completions and three interceptions.

It was the first college football game under new clock rules, where stoppages no longer occur after first downs until the final two minutes of each half. But Albin claimed Harris’ 42 attempts were not necessarily a result of playing from behind with a new rulebook.

“How we operate as an offense, it’s not a thing for us really,” Albin said. “It doesn’t change anything we do. (Harris) was throwing the ball well with the exception of the interceptions. He’s gotta throw it away a couple times. They made a couple good plays on it, but it’s just kind of the flow of the game.”

NCAA Football: Ohio at San Diego State
Ohio quarterback CJ Harris saw career-highs in passing attempts (42) and yards (203), checking in for the injured Kurtis Rourke.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego State has always been renowned for its ability to stifle opposing offenses, finishing top 20 in scoring defense for four consecutive years. But Ohio contributed to the defensively-oriented ballgame as well. On the Bobcat side, outside linebacker Bryce Houston contributed 13 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss while Keye Thompson added five tackles and one stop behind the line of scrimmage. Ohio forced three three-and-outs, keeping the game within striking distance for the majority of the night due to sturdy play from that unit.

“I’m happy with Bryce and Keye,” Albin said. Both of those guys are solid, they’re our leaders out there. We played a lot of guys on defense today, particularly in the front seven. I bet you the number is gonna be 15 guys in the front seven, so that’s a good thing.”

Ohio held the early advantage in the low-scoring affair and entered field goal range with an opportunity to extend a 6-3 lead right before halftime. But at that moment, disaster struck in every manner imaginable.

On a 3rd and 6 from the Aztecs’ 19-yard line, Harris couldn’t find his target on a screen and instead delivered the ball into the gloves of San Diego State free safety Cedarious Barfield with 49 seconds remaining in the half. At that given moment, San Diego State hadn’t shown offensive explosiveness all game, exhibiting just 17 passing yards on 10 attempts.

But suddenly, quarterback Jalen Mayden entered a phenomenal groove. On a drive starting from his own 29-yard line, the senior completed 4-of-6 passes for 68 yards in those 49 seconds, including the buzzer beater. To wrap the half, he connected with All-Mountain West tight end Mark Redman for a 13-yard touchdown as the clock struck zero.

“The turnover right before halftime was huge,” Albin said. “For San Diego State to go down the field and score right before half was a huge momentum thing. But I’m really excited with my defense and what I saw. (Mayden) made a couple throws in the fourth quarter and dropped a couple balls in to 81 (Redman) — the tight end — he’s a really good player.”

NCAA Football: Ohio at San Diego State
San Diego State tight end Mark Redman scored both Aztec touchdowns in the opener. He finished the night with team-highs in receptions (5) and receiving yards (62).
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The Mayden-to-Redman connection produced both San Diego State touchdowns Saturday. The Aztecs chipped in 10 fourth quarter points on a pair of clock-eating drives, and the latter of those scores was courtesy of the Redman (five receptions, 62 yards on the night), who put the finishing touches on an 11-play, 79-yard drive. As a result, San Diego State opened its lead to 20-6 with 5:39 remaining, taking full control over the Bobcats.

Ohio saw several impressive individual performances in the defeat, as running back Sieh Bangura rushed for 65 yards to launch his sophomore campaign and wide receiver Sam Wiglusz tied his career-high with 10 receptions in a 103-yard outing. While Rourke’s return date is unknown, Ohio moves forward next Saturday back home, where it hosts Long Island of the FCS.

“There’s nothing that happened this evening that we cannot correct,” Albin said. “The effort’s there, the kids are hungry, they’ve bonded together, and we’re gonna take it one game at a time — take this one and correct the mistakes.”