The MAC East title and a trip to Detroit could be decided on Tuesday night, as Ohio travels to Akron for a key MACtion contest between the top two teams in the East Division. At 5-1 in conference action, the Bobcats have a one-game lead in the division standings over the Zips (4-2). With a game advantage over Akron, a win by Ohio on Tuesday night would clinch the MAC East. However, if the Zips are victorious, coach Terry Bowden’s team would need to win the Nov. 21 matchup at home against Kent State to take the division crown.
Ohio delivered a statement victory last week, as coach Frank Solich’s team dominated Toledo 38-10 in Athens. The Bobcats gashed the Rockets for 393 yards on the ground and never allowed Toledo’s high-powered offense to generate any big plays or consistently drive into scoring position. The win over the Rockets was Ohio’s third in a row since losing 26-23 to Central Michigan on Oct. 7. The Bobcats’ only defeat in non-conference play came at Purdue (44-21). Under Frank Solich’s direction, Ohio has emerged as one of the MAC’s most consistent programs. The Bobcats have played in bowl games in seven out of the last eight years.
Akron was selected fourth in the MAC’s preseason poll at conference media days, but coach Terry Bowden’s team has a shot to win the East and get to a bowl for the second time in three years. The Zips got off to a slow start with just one win through the first four games. However, there’s no shame in losing to Penn State, Iowa State and Troy. Akron has rebounded by winning four out of its last six, including a 14-13 rain-delayed matchup at Western Michigan.
Ohio holds a 19-13-1 series edge over Akron. The Bobcats have also claimed nine wins in a row over the Zips.
Ohio at Akron
Kickoff: Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Ohio -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Akron’s QB Situation
Mystery surrounds Akron’s quarterback situation for Tuesday night’s contest. Senior Thomas Woodson started the first nine games of the year and threw for 1,742 yards and 14 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Woodson was instrumental in guiding the team to an 8-5 record and bowl victory in 2015 but suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery during the offseason.
However, in a surprise just before kickoff last week, Woodson was suspended for the contest against Miami (Ohio), leaving freshman Kato Nelson as the team’s No. 1 quarterback against the RedHawks. All things considered and with the late announcement in the change under center, the redshirt freshman played well last Tuesday. He threw for 218 yards and a touchdown on 19 completions and added a rushing score. Nelson isn’t the biggest quarterback (6-foot-1 and 205 pounds), but he can be shifty in the pocket and has the necessary speed to get to the perimeter on running plays.
Coach Terry Bowden has not indicated whether or not Woodson will return to the lineup for Tuesday night’s game. If Woodson isn’t back in the lineup, Nelson faces a tough assignment against an Ohio defense limiting opponents to 24.1 points a game. Additionally, the redshirt freshman could use more help out of a ground attack averaging only 105 yards per game. With Deltron Sands and Warren Ball out for the year due to injuries, Manny Morgan (3.8 ypc) and Van Edwards (3.1 ypc) need to add punch to the ground attack. When Nelson throws, junior Kwadarrius Smith (28) and seniors A.J. Coney (37), Tra’Von Chapman (40) and Austin Wolf (22) are the primary targets.
Akron’s offense doesn’t offer much in the way of big-play ability. Through 10 games, the Zips have just five plays of 40 yards or more. The strength of Ohio’s defense is with its linebacker unit, which features standout Quentin Poling. The Bobcats are holding MAC teams to less than 100 yards rushing and just 4.8 yards per play overall.
While Nelson showed promise in last week’s game, this is a tough opponent to make your second career start against.
2. Ohio’s Rushing Attack
Ohio’s ground attack ranks No. 2 in the MAC behind Western Michigan this season, averaging a hefty 248.9 yards per game. That total ranks 14th nationally, while the Bobcats’ 5.7 per-carry average is the best of any team in the MAC. Ohio has also scored 35 times on the ground and has been held under 150 rushing yards just once this season.
Coach Frank Solich has a couple of options to power his ground attack. Junior A.J. Ouellette leads the team with 897 yards and averages 5.7 yards per carry. He has also reached paydirt seven times, which ranks second on the team behind quarterback Nathan Rourke. The junior college transfer has provided a spark for Ohio’s offense and has rushed for 668 yards and 17 touchdowns through 10 contests. And if those two players weren’t enough, senior Dorian Brown (600 yards) has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in two out of the last three games.
It’s no secret Ohio wants to establish the run to set up its passing game. However, that formula is problematic for Akron’s defense. The Zips rank sixth in the MAC against the run, surrendering 186.7 yards per game on the ground. The numbers are even worse in MAC-only games. Through six league contests, Akron is giving up 201.5 rushing yards per game. Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert is one of the top defenders in the MAC and will have his hands full against this prolific Bobcat rushing game.
3. Ohio QB Nathan Rourke
As mentioned above, Rourke has provided a spark for Ohio’s offense this season. Quinton Maxwell opened the 2017 campaign as the starter, but Rourke – a native of Canada – was promoted to the starting job for the third game of the season. Since that point, the Bobcats have only two games of fewer than 30 points and have scored at least 38 points in each of their last four contests. Ohio’s offense posted 38 points against Toledo and 45 versus Miami (Ohio) – two of the better defenses in the MAC.
Rourke’s strength as a quarterback is his ability to create plays on the ground or execute the read option. He’s rushed for 668 yards and 17 scores and also averaged 6.5 per carry on just 103 attempts. While Rourke is still developing as a passer, he’s been more than capable in his stint as Ohio’s quarterback. The sophomore has six completions of 40 yards or more and has connected on 56.3 percent of his throws. Rourke has plenty of talent on the outside to target, especially now that Papi White has returned to the lineup after missing four games due to an early-season injury.
Rourke’s development is noteworthy as team’s try to load up the box and take away the run. Akron’s secondary ranks eighth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.9 percent of their throws. If the Zips aim to take away the run, Rourke should have no trouble connecting downfield to a talented group of receivers. The sophomore continues to get better with every snap and should have another big performance as Ohio looks to close out the division crown.
Ohio is 60 minutes away from a second consecutive trip to the MAC Championship Game in Detroit. And with a win over Toledo last week, coach Frank Solich’s team has to be the favorite to win the conference title in Ford Field in early December. But in order for Solich’s team to cross a MAC title off the wish list, they have to beat Akron. Nelson provided optimism for the offense last week, but this team has to get more out of its ground game and defense in order to win. Stopping the Bobcats’ ground attack will prove to be too much for the Zips, as Ohio pulls away in the second half for a comfortable win and secures another berth in the MAC title game.
Prediction: Ohio 34, Akron 17
(Nathan Rourke photo courtesy of ohiobobcats.com)