Ohio’s 24-17 victory over Northern Illinois started in a familiar fashion. It was the fourth time this season, and third in a row, that Ohio had gotten the ball first and immediately marched down the field for a touchdown.
In three instances, including Saturday, Ohio has won the coin toss and elected to receive. That is somewhat rare, as most teams in college and the NFL tend to defer. However, it is a strategy that has worked extremely well for Ohio.
The Bobcats scored on an eight-yard touchdown pass to Sam Wiglusz, which also became a theme Saturday. Wiglusz was targeted seven times and caught six passes for 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including the winning score on a phenomenal catch with 7:00 remaining.
Wiglusz has become the favorite target for quarterback Kurtis Rourke over the course of this season. He leads the Bobcats in receptions, yards and touchdowns, all by significant margins.
“Kurtis has been lights out all year,” Wiglusz said. “I know if I give him any space, he’ll find a way to get the ball in there. The number one thing you want as a receiver is trust from your quarterback, and I have that.”
Wiglusz has certainly rewarded that trust, as he currently ranks third in the Mid-American Conference in receptions, fifth in yards and tied for first in touchdowns.
Although Wiglusz made the big plays on offense, the defense was the most important part of Ohio’s win for the second week in a row.
Coming off their best season performance, Ohio held Western Michigan to just 14 points and 333 yards. This would be a challenge for Ohio’s defense to repeat, especially since they were one of the country’s worst defenses through six games.
But the Bobcat defense was up to the challenge, holding the Huskies to 377 yards of offense and 17 points. Before last week’s game, the Bobcats had allowed at least 30 points and 450 yards of offense to all six of their opponents, but the past two weeks have been significantly better.
“There’s been some great adjustments by the defensive staff,” head coach Tim Albin said. “Getting Coach (John) Hauser on the sideline has helped, and getting some guys back has helped.”
Ohio has dealt with plenty of injuries in the secondary this season, and two of the players that have returned in recent weeks are Zack Sanders, who had two interceptions against Western Michigan and nine total tackles against Northern Illinois, and Tariq Drake, who returned with eight total tackles Saturday.
Keye Thompson, who has played in all eight games this year, missed the entire 2021 season due to an injury. Now, Thompson leads Ohio in tackles for the season with 64 and extends that lead with 14 total tackles against Northern Illinois, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
“Over the past two, three weeks, we’ve really locked in mentally,” Thompson said. “At the beginning of the season, we had a lot of bad plays and blown coverages, but we’ve really tightened up in the secondary.”
Saturday’s game was the fourth time this season that Ohio’s opponent had gotten the ball in the final two minutes of regulation with a chance to tie the game or take the lead, and it was the fourth time Ohio’s defense came up with a stop.
The Bobcats have shown the ability to make the big stop all season, but with a pair of complete, 60-minute performances in the last two games and a number of players returning from injury, the Bobcats have proved that they are ready for the stretch run.