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Michael Farkas awaits the snap before a punt in Ohio’s 24-21 loss to Northern Illinois on Saturday.

Football: Ohio sputters after big lead in 24-21 loss to NIU

DeKALB, Ill.— A well-timed pitch from Nathan Rourke to A.J. Ouellette resulted in Ohio’s first score. A pair of busted-coverage pass plays led to two other scores. Ohio was flexing its muscle on Northern Illinois.

The Bobcats’ defense forced five straight punts in the second and third quarters. Everything lined up for the Bobcats to leave Huskie Stadium with a win Saturday behind a dominant second half performance.

But the Huskies showed up to play the fourth quarter. After scoring on the last play of the third quarter, Ohio was shut out in the fourth quarter, and turnovers put its defense in uncomfortable spots. The Huskies capitalized on all of that, and the Bobcats couldn’t finish in their 24-21 loss.

When asked about what went wrong in the fourth quarter, coach Frank Solich quickly responded.

“Turnovers.”

It was only one turnover, but it was a big one. Before that, Ohio had built a lead.

After Rourke found tight end Connor Brown on an 11-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the third quarter, the Bobcats held a 12-point cushion. Then, NIU went on a methodical 12-play, 77-yard drive to dip into Ohio’s advantage. 

The Bobcats’ rushing attack, which was largely nonexistent, couldn’t shave much off the clock, so Ohio was forced to travel by air. Rourke dropped back to pass from NIU’s 39-yard line, and All-American defensive end Sutton Smith sacked him, forced him to fumble and recovered the fumble. The Huskies had the momentum, the home crowd and the opportunity to take the lead.

Ohio’s first two turnovers, a Rourke interception and an A.J. Ouellette fumble, didn’t hamper the Bobcats. They survived those mistakes and kept the lead. NIU only had eight points off the Ohio turnovers. The third one was the backbreaker. Six plays later, the Huskies had the lead, and they didn’t give it back.

“There’s no excuse for not holding onto the ball,” Rourke said. “I’ve got to do a better job of that. That’s on me.”

Before the fourth quarter, Ohio made many of the right plays. The pair of touchdown passes Rourke threw were against heavy pressure, and he found receivers through busted coverage. Ohio got a career out five three-and-outs. The Bobcats were even helped out by NIU’s 12 penalties, which cost the Huskies 102 yards. 

But the fourth quarter hit the Bobcats with force. It seemed to turn a page or start a new chapter. NIU delivered punch after punch. Ohio didn’t cover its face, and NIU landed those punches. The Bobcats had no answer — especially for Huskies’ quarterback Marcus Childers, who had 169 yards on the ground, 80 of which came in the fourth quarter.

“We didn’t tackle very well,” Solich said. “He had too many holes off of designed runs, designed draws. We’ll have to take a look at our schemes in terms of what caused him to have such lanes that he had. He’s an excellent runner. He’s got good speed. He’s got good size. If you let him get going, you’re going to have a tough time.”

It seemed to culminate when Smith came off the edge, pummeled Rourke and recovered the remnants of the play: the ball, loose on the Huskie Stadium turf.

Before that, Rourke and the passing attack, carefully concocted with Ohio’s defensive effort, made all the plays for the Bobcats. They had the lead despite rushing for just 46 yards. They were going to win with what they had been doing.

Until they weren’t. Plays weren’t made in the fourth quarter. Ohio’s left with a .500 record, overall and in conference, and questions about the marquee road win that could have been.

“We’ve just got to be able to keep the lead,” Rourke said. “I think it’s good experience (to be in close games), but that doesn’t make them sting any less.”

@SpencerHolbrook

sh690914@ohio.edu

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