Ohio is headed to Detroit. It crushed Bowling Green 38-14 Tuesday in the regular season finale to clinch the Mid-American Conference East Division and earn a spot in the MAC Championship game against Toledo.
With quarterback Kurtis Rourke out for the season with a knee injury, it was up to C.J. Harris to give Ohio its biggest win of the season, and through one quarter, things were not looking good.
Ohio trailed 7-0 and had amassed just 38 total yards. Even though it was driving at the end of the quarter, the offense had looked dreadful, and the defense had just allowed a long touchdown drive.
In the second quarter, however, the Bobcats completely flipped the script. They finished off the drive that had begun in the first quarter with a touchdown to tie the game, then scored 21 more points to take a three-touchdown lead going into halftime.
Ohio’s defense picked off Bowling Green quarterback Matt McDonald three times in the second quarter, including a key interception from Tariq Drake in the final minute with a 25-yard return that set up Ohio for one more touchdown.
The Bobcats desperately needed a big quarter, and they got one. They outgained the Falcons 213-91 and held them to -5 rushing yards.
“Our coaches put us in a great position to make plays, and when you get the opportunity to make them you got to make them,” Drake said. “And after the turnovers, the offense did a great job of putting points on the board and capitalizing.”
Harris performed admirably in his first collegiate start, as Ohio relied on a heavy dose of read options, quarterback draws and Sieh Bangura.
Bangura carried the ball 27 times for 96 yards and a touchdown, and Harris carried it 12 times for 65 yards and three touchdowns. Ohio’s rushing attack was excellent all night, carrying the ball 54 times for 188 yards and four of Ohio’s five touchdowns.
It was a significant change for the Bobcats, who had the best passing attack in the MAC coming into the game, and it only made sense to do so without Rourke.
Ohio ran the ball on 72% of its plays, by far its highest mark of the season. It has mostly had a balanced attack this season, but it relied heavily on its rushing attack Tuesday.
“You don’t run the ball without the guys up front getting it done,” head coach Tim Albin said. “Sieh (Bangura) was running hard and breaking tackles, and that type of running style wears guys out.”
As good as Ohio’s offense was after its first two drives, Tuesday’s win was much more about Ohio’s defense, which has gone from one of the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision to one of the best in the conference.
The Bobcats allowed just 279 yards, their second lowest total of the season. From the moment that Rourke was not going to play, it was obvious that the defense was going to have to step up.
As they have done in every game for the last six weeks, they did. Nine of the Falcons 12 drives ended in either a punt or a turnover.
“I’m thankful for the defense for sure,” Harris said. “They balled out today.”
One year after going 3-9 and losing to Football Championship Subdivision opponent Duquesne, Ohio has won nine games for the first time since 2011 and won the MAC East for the first time since 2016.
The Bobcats have dealt with a host of injuries to their wide receivers, running backs, defensive backs and finally, their star quarterback.
And in just under two weeks, they will have a chance to win the MAC for the first time in 54 years.