EVANSTON, Ill. — Sooner or later, Ohio is going to have to stop running into the same brick wall it has for the past four games.
Recurring issues pop up game after game like clockwork. Third-down conversion failures, turnovers and penalties at the worst possible times have stopped Ohio in its tracks for four games straight. Northwestern took advantage of that and gave Ohio a 35-6 beatdown at Ryan Field on Saturday afternoon.
For the second time this season, Ohio (0-4) was held to under 10 points by a Power 5 opponent. Northwestern’s defense ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten before Saturday, and it had allowed over 24 points per game. It even gave up 30 points to Duke the week prior.
But Ohio isn’t Duke. Duke can complete a drive.
Ohio coach Tim Albin has acknowledged Ohio’s offensive failures. He tries to see the positive in even the worst of situations, but Albin struggled to find good in Ohio’s most glaring issue during his post-game press conference.
“I think we had more plays in the first half than (Northwestern) did,“ Albin said. “We did not finish. We ran into that same problem last week against (Louisiana).”
The Bobcats were forced to punt seven consecutive times between the first and third quarters. They had been shut out in all but name until the closing seconds when quarterback Armani Rogers busted out a 55-yard run on the last play of the game to tack on six points.
It’s hardly a silver lining. The touchdown was more of an afterthought, tacked onto the end of an otherwise unimpressive game for Ohio’s rushing attack.
Ohio’s run game failed to punch through Northwestern’s defense. Rogers was the only Bobcat to record more than 42 rushing yards. Albin has stated before that Ohio is a program built on an effective run game, but that building block has been missing since the season began.
Ohio gained 348 total yards Saturday, but capitalized on none of them. Even when Ohio did gain ground, it was bound to lose it in penalties due to miscues and mistakes. Lack of discipline cost Ohio yardage it couldn’t afford to lose.
“Some of the holding penalties or certain penalties that we got, we’ve got to be more disciplined,“ Rogers said. “We’re going from second-and-two to second-and-seven, and it makes a difference on that drive.”
Its opening drive was promising, at the least. Ohio busted 61 yards downfield in 13 plays and feigned confidence when switching snaps between Rogers and fellow quarterback Kurtis Rourke. The drive fizzled out after a failed field goal attempt, but Ohio had at least gotten downfield in decent time. It was a start, and Ohio’s second drive began in much better field position.
But then Rourke fumbled, and Ohio’s next seven drives ended with a punt.
“We just weren't able to convert,“ Albin said. “And again I think offensively there was bright spots, but we’ve got to get the ball in the end zone, fellas. It can't be a field goal, it's got to be touchdowns, and we’ve got to complement the defense. We’ve got to help them and get them a rest.”
It didn’t help that Ohio’s offensive line had been ripped apart over its first four games.
Rourke and Rogers had to line up behind an offensive line that hobbled into Evanston down some of its most seasoned veterans. Injuries plagued the offensive line since day one. Four of Ohio’s original starting linemen are now off the field after center Nick Sink exited in the first quarter with an apparent knee injury.
Ohio has had to make due running on reserve linemen, and the growing pains have been almost as bad as the injuries. The offensive line allowed a season-high four sacks and failed to contain a Northwestern defensive line that forced Rourke and Rogers to scramble out of the pocket often. The pressure cracked the passing game late in the second half, as both Rourke and Rogers were picked off in the fourth quarter.
“We've got to continue to find ways to protect our quarterbacks,“ Albin said. “We cannot give up that many sacks and expect to have a productive offense.”
But even when the offensive line was at its peak, the Bobcats weren’t scoring. They’ve averaged fewer than 14 points per game this, all the while being led by a coach who was their offensive coordinator before this season. By all accounts, the Bobcats should be running up the score, but nothing is clicking.
The Bobcats have been humiliated for four games straight, and the same issues on offense have cropped up time and time again. Sooner or later, they have to step back and reevaluate.