It’s not hard to notice that something is different with Ohio this season. With every snap, the difference touches the ball.
He stands 6-foot-2, weighs 209 pounds and is a true sophomore. He’s not physically imposing, either. At least before the snap.
The main reason for Ohio’s offensive turnaround starts and ends with one player, the difference-maker for Ohio: Nathan Rourke.
A transfer, Rourke came in as the backup to start the season behind Quinton Maxwell. That lasted all of a game and a quarter. Ohio was then committed to a two-quarterback system. That lasted a game.
Rourke, right now, might end up as the best quarterback that coach Frank Solich has coached in Athens.
Rourke started the Kansas game, the third game of the season, and hasn’t looked back. His numbers have been astounding, his game has been calm and his offense has soared.
Ohio ranks eighth in the country in points per game (41.2) and 22nd in rushing yards per game. On a personal level, Rourke’s numbers are more impressive. He leads the Mid-American Conference in scoring (96 points), rushing touchdowns (16) and is fourth with 2,057 total yards.
He’s already tied for 10th in Ohio history for passing touchdowns in a season (13) and is second with rushing touchdowns (16). With four more rushing touchdowns, he’ll break Kalvin McRae’s all-time mark of 19.
McRae broke that record in 2007 — as a senior running back.
It’s been an immediate, swift switch for an offense that needed it in the worst way possible. With one of the best defenses in the MAC last season, often times Ohio was left needing one more score. In five of the six losses, Ohio fell by a touchdown or less. The other time was a nine-point loss at Tennessee.
Sometimes it was exciting. Other times, it was boring. This year, that’s been blown away — and it hasn’t been close.
Having a deep, experienced line is the first component and a healthy A.J. Ouellette doesn’t hurt, either. But the Bobcats have always had a good line and a good running game. They haven’t always had Nathan Rourke.
There are faults to Rourke’s game, sure. He’s just 19 and hasn’t played a full season of FBS football. To talk about his faults would be nitpicking.
He’s thrown just . He’s fumbled three times, all against Central Michigan. He doesn’t have a rocket arm, but his passes often times find their target. He doesn’t have breakaway speed, but he can juke and make cuts to slow the defense down.
When his arm isn’t there, like against Bowling Green, he rushed for 154 yards and three touchdowns. When Miami shut down the run, he threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
He’s said he doesn’t care about those numbers, though, and the only thing he cares about is winning.
But he should care.
Because those numbers are why Ohio has a great chance, another chance, at winning a MAC championship. Backed up by a defense firmly entrenched in the middle of the MAC defensive rankings, Ohio now has an offense that can outscore almost anyone.
The defense doesn’t have to be perfect like it did last year when Ohio had trouble scoring. The defense doesn’t have to force turnovers every week. All it has to do is hang on, and wait for the offense will take care of the rest.
You’ll see how much Rourke has grown up on Wednesday night when Ohio faces Toledo in what could be a MAC championship game preview. At 8-1 with a stud at quarterback, Toledo is the class of the conference this year. Logan Woodside will almost assuredly be drafted in next spring’s NFL draft.
On the opposite side of the field, Rourke will try and outduel him.
It might be easy to doubt Rourke and the Bobcats, who will face the toughest test they’ve faced all year.
But with Rourke’s history, that wouldn’t be wise.