MAC football made its triumphant return on Saturday at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego. Ohio trekked across three time zones for its second ever meeting with San Diego State. But unlike the 2018 Frisco Bowl, Saturday’s matchup did not wind up in Bobcat celebration.
Instead, Ohio fell to San Diego State in 20-13 fashion, marred by turnovers and an injured quarterback. Here are five takeaways from the action — the first of many data points on the Bobcats and Aztecs in 2023.
Kurtis Rourke looked like Kurtis Rourke of old… for a quarter
Perhaps the most intriguing element of this Week 0 matchup was witnessing the return of one of the top quarterbacks in college football. Kurtis Rourke claimed MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors in a breakout 2022 campaign, featuring… However, that stellar season was cut short when he tore his ACL in a mid-November matchup against Ball State, missing out on Ohio’s conference championship appearance and bowl game.
But Rourke recovered to form in nine months, earning the start for the Bobcats on Saturday. The star quarterback captained just two possessions, maneuvering 81 yards for a field goal in his first drive since November. His ball placement was phenomenal as he completed 8-of-10 passes for 75 yards, and several of those completions were darts through tight windows. Unfortunately, all of Rourke’s progress came to another halt on the final play of the first quarter when San Diego State middle linebacker Zyrus Fiaseu flew in unblocked on a blitz.
Rourke took a brutal hit and remained on the field for roughly one minute. Eventually, the quarterback jogged off on his own power, but a slight limp was observed in the process. Albin said postgame he is “not too concerned” about the injury, opting to play it safe against Rourke’s wishes. While it’s unclear when we’ll see the Canadian quarterback next, it is clear that his presence remains essential. Operating nearly the entire contest without Rourke, Ohio waited until the 1:59 mark of the fourth quarter before scoring their first touchdown of the season.
Bryce Houston, MAC Defensive Player of the Year candidate
The 2023 Mid-American Conference features some of the most intriguing talent the conference has ever seen. Two AP All-Americans return to the league in Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell and Buffalo free safety Marcus Fuqua. Additionally, the reigning FBS solo tackles leader Shaun Dolac remains on Buffalo’s roster.
We’ve only seen one MAC team play in 2023, but it’s clear Ohio outside linebacker Bryce Houston is going to belong among those names for the conference’s top defensive player. Houston was not named to the All-MAC squad in 2022 despite posting 76 tackles, 11.0 tackles for loss, and a pair of fumble recoveries, but earned a Third Team nod in 2021 after registering 104 tackles and 8.0 tackles for loss.
On Saturday, Houston often looked like the best player on the field. The senior captain led all defenders in total tackles with 13 and solo tackles with seven, and he penetrated the backfield on several occasions, finishing with 1.5 tackles for loss. Houston brought more to the table than just limiting the run, as he consistently blanketed Aztec receivers and tight ends in coverage — especially in the first half — despite the effort not showing in the box score.
Ohio’s defense looks miles better than it did to start 2022, when it surrendered 40.7 points per game across its first six contests. It all starts with Houston’s versatility and No. 32 will be a must-watch for offensive coordinators in the film room for the next four months.
San Diego State’s defense remains an efficient machine
San Diego State is as consistent as it comes in college football. The Aztecs have strung together 13 consecutive winning seasons, and throughout that span, they’ve established an unmistakable brand. San Diego State is always renowned for stellar defensive play, fielding top 20 scoring defenses in four straight years and eight of the last nine seasons.
Such was the case yet again Saturday. San Diego State’s defense held firm throughout the entirety of the contest. Through 58 minutes of action, Ohio only had two field goals accumulated on the scoreboard. The Aztecs let up their only touchdown toward the game’s end, but that touchdown almost didn’t happen — as Ohio scored immediately after Aztec safety Marcus Ratcliffe’s 100-yard pick six was negated due to a roughing the passer penalty.
Even without Ratcliffe’s pick-six appearing in the box score, the Aztecs still imposed their will with three interceptions, and two of those takeaways were game-breaking plays. One interception transpired in the final minute before halftime when free safety Cedarious Barfield picked off CJ Harris — igniting a rapid 79-yard touchdown drive to send San Diego State into the break with a 10-6 advantage. The only interception of the second half couldn’t have been accompanied with more perfect timing. Ohio trailed by seven in the waning seconds and was pushing the ball downfield, but upon reaching the San Diego State 33-yard line, linebacker New Zealand Williams snatched the ball from Harris to hand the Aztecs a 1-0 record in the standings.
Turnovers aside, the unit also produced a consistent strand of stops. The Aztecs stifled Ohio to 5-of-16 on third down and kept the run game in check (3.2 yards per carry) to the point where the Bobcats targeted the air 52 times — 10 with Rourke, 42 with the backup Harris.
Only four teams produced more than 27 points on San Diego State’s defense in 2023 and seven teams were held to 14 and below. Those trends could reiterate in 2023, despite losing a heap of talent this offseason. After Saturday, it appears the Aztecs reloaded without any noticeable drop-off, as usual, and this defense will be a thorn in opposing offenses all season.
San Diego State’s offense still needs explosiveness
Conversely, the offense often leaves a lot to be desired, especially in the passing game. San Diego State hasn’t fielded a scoring offense which ranked in the top 50th percentile since 2017 — ranking below 100th in the category in 2018, 2019, and 2022. And while the Aztecs produced enough offensively to slide past the Rourke-less Bobcats, the offense left more to be desired if the Aztecs want to buck the aforementioned trends.
When San Diego State’s defense forced an interception with 49 seconds remaining in the first half, the Aztecs’ passing attack exhibited a stat-line of four completions on 10 attempts, traveling 17 yards. But quarterback Jalen Mayden suddenly got into a rhythm in those 49 seconds by completing 4-of-6 passes for 68 yards — providing the team’s first touchdown drive of the evening. But that drive, albeit a game-altering one, was the extent of verticality in the passing game observed Saturday.
The Aztecs’ offense doesn’t typically rely on explosive playmaking, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be lethal. The fourth quarter showcased how dangerous the offense can be, but in a “death by paper cuts” style. San Diego State struck with back-to-back clock-eating drives — a field goal drive of 10 plays and 77 yards and a touchdown sequence spanning 11 plays and 79 yards. By the end of those series, the Aztecs firmly held a 20-6 lead, getting just enough from its offense to get by comfortably.
Mayden connected on a fair share of short-to-medium passes during those drives, concluding the game with a perfect 7-of-7 showing in the fourth quarter. The senior quarterback should see across-the-board improvements in his second season as a starter, but the Aztecs’ offensive identity will reside within the run game, per tradition. Jaylon Armstead and Kenan Christon combined for 127 rushing yards on 6.7 yards per carry while splitting carries in the backfield, and they’ll be the ones primarily tasked with bolstering the offensive output in 2023.
0-1 stings for Ohio, but it’s nothing fatal
For a team fresh off a 10-4 season — tied for its winningest in program history — there’s nothing satisfying about an 0-1 mark in the standings. Saturday was certainly a winnable game for the Bobcats. It’s impossible to simulate what result would have occurred had Rourke remained healthy throughout, but the game was still winnable with Harris. Critical turnovers were the determining factor, and also, Ohio struggled to finish drives — amassing 55+ yards on five of 10 possessions despite 13 points to show. Still, the offense outgained San Diego State while the defense held firm by forcing San Diego State to 4-of-13 on third down while causing three three-and-outs.
As Albin stated postgame, “There’s nothing that happened this evening that we cannot correct.” He also commented that he’s “not too concerned about” Rourke’s injury, so the star quarterback could be returning to the gridiron sooner rather than later. The Bobcats return to Peden Stadium next Saturday to host Long Island of the FCS before rounding out a moderate non-conference slate with Iowa State and Florida Atlantic. And most importantly, the chase for the program’s first MAC championship since 1968 remains unaffected as Ohio doesn’t launch league play until Sept. 23.