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Ohio’s Keye Thompson poses for a portrait at Sook Center after a practice at Peden Stadium on Nov. 10, 2022.

Football: Keye Thompson has returned to lead Ohio's defensive turnaround

Roughly a year ago, Keye Thompson stood on the sidelines at Peden Stadium recovering from a serious leg injury as Ohio lost its eighth game of the season. It was a 35-23 defeat at the hands of Toledo that snapped a two-game winning streak which could have brought a positive end to a difficult season.

One year later, Thompson recorded five total tackles at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana, as Ohio picked up its eighth win of the season and moved just one win away from a spot in the Mid-American Conference Championship game.

Thompson played in every game for Ohio his redshirt freshman season in 2019 and played in two of Ohio's three games in the shortened 2020 season, emerging as a potential star at linebacker. However, Thompson missed the entirety of the 2021 season with an injury.

All he could do was watch as the Bobcats went 3-9 in year one under head coach Tim Albin. 

"It was very difficult," Thompson said. "Obviously, it plays a little mind game on you, but you keep encouraging your teammates to push forward and do their job. I just tried to lead off the field as much as I could."

But it was clear that the Bobcats missed Thompson's leadership on the field, as they ranked in the bottom half of the MAC in both scoring defense and yardage allowed. In a year in which the Bobcats' offense struggled significantly, they really could have used a stronger defensive season.

After a rough 2021, Thompson returned to Ohio with his sights set on being ready for camp.

"The rehab process was straightforward, but it was very tough," Thompson said. "Me and our training staff got after it pretty hard the whole year leading all the way up to fall camp."

Unfortunately for Ohio, even with Thompson back, the defense struggled at the start of the 2022 season. Through six weeks, Ohio was allowing almost 561.2 yards and 40.7 points per game, both of which were among the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The offense picked up most of the slack and Ohio was 3-3 despite having arguably the worst defense in FBS.

After a 55-34 win over Akron that got Ohio back to .500 despite allowing 478 yards to a struggling Akron team, something shifted.

"We started off the season very slow," Thompson said. "But we had meetings week in and week out, and we wanted to get going early in the game and start forcing turnovers."

It worked. Ohio had forced eight turnovers through six games, which is by no means a bad total, but it almost doubled with six turnovers against Western Michigan in Week 7. Ohio needed the turnovers too, as for the first time against a non-Power 5 opponent, its offense struggled.

In Weeks 7 and 8, Ohio's usual script completely flipped, as the defense had to carry the offense through a couple of lower-scoring wins over Western Michigan and Northern Illinois. 

But in Week 10 against Buffalo, in the first midweek game of the season, Ohio finally got on the same page. The result was a dominant 45-24 win over the team that had been leading the MAC East, and Ohio allowed just 17 offensive points and a measly 260 offensive yards. 

"It's very scary, honestly," Thompson said. "You get the offense rolling the way they have been and the defense rolling the way they have been, I think the Bobcats can go a very long way."

Over the last five weeks, Ohio is allowing just 330 yards and 18.8 points per game, both of which would rank first in the MAC by a significant margin.

Thompson has been a huge part of that. Over that stretch, he has recorded 43 total tackles, increasing his team lead for the season, as well as a pass break-up, a fumble recovery and three tackles for loss. 

Thompson has 27 more tackles than anyone else on the team, and he has helped turn Ohio's defense into one of the best in the conference.

The statistical shift may have come after Ohio's win over Akron, but Thompson knew something was going on during that blowout win.

"The Akron game was the first of our (now six-game) winning streak, I think we realized right there," Thompson said. "If we can gel together as a unit, stop explosive plays and get off the field on third down, we can take care of business each week."

The Bobcats only have to take care of business one more time to secure a spot in the MAC Championship game. They will be leaning on their defense and Keye Thompson now more than ever.

 @willocunningham 

 wc425318@ohio.edu

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