BUFFALO, N.Y. — Just five plays after being helped off the field with an injury, Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke returned in the Bobcats’ last-minute red zone drive to try and tie the game.
His team had known for days that it wouldn’t participate in next week’s Mid-American Conference title game. Pride was the only thing on the line.
On 4th and 12, Rourke escaped pressure and threw a pass into the end zone, which was tipped and intercepted. Ohio’s regular season ended on a sour note, with a 31-24 loss Friday against Buffalo.
“Obviously this is a very competitive bunch, a very competitive team, and we want to win a MAC Championship ever single year,” Rourke said. “I think we showed the character of our team, being down 17 at one point with kind of not really anything to play for.”
Akron, which Ohio (8-4, 5-3 MAC) lost to last Tuesday, sealed the MAC East on Tuesday with a win over Kent State. The Bobcats’ conference title drought is now 49 years old. They had a shot at just their second 10-win season since 1968, but little else was up for grabs.
The Bobcats ran into a Buffalo (6-6, 4-4) team that had lost half a dozen games by 29 points and sought bowl eligibility on senior day. At the start, the Bulls looked hungrier.
Ohio was blown away in the first quarter, allowing 24 points while playing into wind exceeding 20 mph. The gusts were so strong, Buffalo burned two of its timeouts in the final 15 seconds of the quarter to keep the wind at its back for a field goal try — then kicker Adam Mitcheson drilled a career high 49-yarder with room to spare.
Nobody hurt the Bobcats more than Bulls receiver Anthony Johnson, though, who entered the game with 109.2 receiving yards per game (third in NCAA). He grabbed a pair of touchdowns on Buffalo’s first two drives and finished with six catches for 155 yards.
The Bobcats were also hampered by their own aches and pains. Leading receiver Brendan Cope (35 catches, four touchdowns on the season) and running back Dorian Brown (605 yards, seven touchdowns) missed the game, while starting running back A.J. Ouellette left after one drive with a shoulder injury.
“It’s a very proud football team,” coach Frank Solich said. “They’re a group of guys that continue to fight.”
When the teams switched sides, Ohio’s defense clamped down on Johnson and the rest of the Bulls’ offense. Buffalo gained just 98 total yards (62 passing) in the second and third quarters.
In the meantime, Ohio stormed back with 17 unanswered points to knot the game 24-24 entering the fourth. Rourke snuck in for a goal line touchdown and threw one 57 yards to receiver Cameron Odom.
Ohio allowed a 39-yard punt return in the middle of the fourth that led to a touchdown run on the next play. The Bobcats took the ensuing drive into Buffalo territory, where Rourke appeared to throw a game-sealing interception.
But the play was called back on a roughing the passer penalty, as Rourke writhed on the ground after the late hit. He left the game under his own power, after the training staff inspected him for more than five minutes on the field, and gave way to backup quarterback Quinton Maxwell.
Rourke returned soon after with the Bobcats just six yards from tying the game. He was sacked, then intercepted on consecutive plays. Buffalo was able to run out the clock from there.
After the game, Rourke spoke pointedly about his return from injury and downplayed its significance.
“I just needed to take a couple breaths and get back into it,” he said. “It was a critical part of the game … I just wanted to get back out there because I thought that we could win the game and I wanted to be part of that.”
Ohio didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme. They will find out soon what bowl game awaits them, likely in the Bahamas or in Idaho.
One of the few things the Bobcats could play for were individual records. Rourke etched his name in the school record book as the single-season record holder for rushing touchdowns (21) and scoring (132 points).
No surprise, he didn’t care. To him, the win is what mattered.
“I was aware of (the records), but I mean, we’re in Buffalo and we need to win,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting them to stop the game or anything. No one has even said anything to me about it … We’re here for a MAC Championship and individual stats don’t matter as much as team accomplishments.”