PITTSBURGH — Nathan Rourke has rarely had trouble commanding the offense in his 26 starts with Ohio.
Since Rourke took his first snap with the Bobcats two seasons ago, Ohio’s offense has moved at a quick pace. It’s suffocated opponents with an aggressive run-first approach that Rourke has complemented with a modest passing game to keep the defense in check.
The formula has always worked for Rourke and the offense. It didn’t Saturday against Pitt.
Ohio lost 20-10 at Heinz Field after Rourke went 15-for-27 with 177 yards and no touchdowns. It’s the lowest scoring total the Bobcats have had since 2016 when they scored nine points in a win against Akron. Rourke’s -43 rushing yards were a career low.
“When you play a talented team like that, you have to make enough plays on offense,“ Rourke said. “Hats off to them. They played extremely well.”
So, how did Pitt stop arguably the best non-Power 5 quarterback in the nation?
It started with an aggressive pass rush that had its way with Ohio’s offensive line. Rourke was sacked six times, the most he’s ever been sacked with the Bobcats, and the rushing attack was held to 35 yards. No Ohio rushing play was longer than eight yards.
Pitt’s defensive line, which lost two of its starters to season-ending injuries, was one of the strongest Rourke has seen. The Panthers mixed and matched their blitzes to near perfection. The Bobcats never adjusted.
“It’s very difficult when they’re pressing your receivers and the timing is thrown off,“ Rourke said. “(They were) showing us some looks we haven’t seen.”
Last week against Rhode Island, Ohio scored points on seven of eight drives with Rourke under center. He was in-sync with a relatively inexperienced wide receiver group and felt comfortable passing the ball to anyone.
On Saturday, Rourke was limited to screen passes and short gains. He looked long early — Ohio’s first play of the game was a deep passing attempt to Jerome Buckner that fell incomplete — but the timing wasn’t there for big plays.
The inexperience at wide receiver showed, too, and that shouldn’t be surprising. A Power 5 school should be able to lock down a group of young receivers from the Mid-American Conference. Any predictions for a repeat performance of last week’s offensive dominance were short-sighted.
Buckner led Ohio with 60 receiving yards, but 45 of those came on one completion, and he dropped a pass in the end zone on the next play. Cam Odom, the most experienced receiver of the group and the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart, was held to one completion for the second consecutive week.
Rourke placed the blame on himself, but it’s tough for any quarterback to sustain long drives when receivers struggle to find space in the seconds Rourke had before the pocket collapsed.
“We missed some opportunities, myself included,“ Rourke said. “It starts with me and starts with decision making on my part, and getting the ball out on time and to the right places.
There’s no need to panic, though. Ohio rounds out its nonconference schedule against Marshall and Louisiana-Lafayette, two non-Power 5 schools, who likely won’t have the players available to successfully copy the plan Pitt used to shut down Rourke.
The Bobcats will learn from it, too. Now, they know how a defense can stop their dual-threat quarterback. It’ll be up to Rourke and coach Frank Solich to combat that, but there’s a reason why the duo has been one of the best in the MAC for the last two seasons.
“We're going to have to figure something out because I guarantee isn’t the last time we're going to see it,“ Rourke said. “We'll be ready when a game plan comes up like that.”