The health of star Quarterback Kurtis Rourke was the biggest storyline heading into Ohio’s matchup against San Diego State, and after Ohio’s 20-13 loss, Rourke’s health is still in question.
Rourke is coming off a torn ACL injury that he suffered late in the 2022 season, and up until Monday, his status was still in question for the week zero game.
In the first quarter against the Aztecs, Rourke looked as healthy as ever, completing 8/10 passes for 75 yards. He linked up with receiver Sam Wiglusz multiple times including a 12-yard pass on third and 7 during Ohio’s first drive, which saw Ohio get to San Diego State’s two-yard line before settling for a field goal.
Wiglusz was the Bobcats’ leading receiver with a team-high 10 catches for 103 yards.
On Rourke’s second drive, the Bobcats again crept toward field goal range. However, on third and 5, Rourke was sacked for a 10-yard loss, knocking the Bobcats out of field goal range, and even worse, putting the health of Rourke in question. After briefly seeing trainers, Rourke jogged off the field and headed to the medical tent. Rourke went to the locker room later in the second quarter and came out in street clothes during the second half.
“Kurtis wanted to go back in there (the game),” said Ohio Coach Tim Albin. “We wanted to get him back to Athens and get him checked out closer ... but I’m not too concerned about it.”
Ohio’s defense backed up its quarterback with a strong series that included a 4-yard tackle for a loss from defensive tackle Rodney Matthews, to put backup quarterback CJ Harris immediately on the field.
In Harris’ first play from scrimmage, the quarterback was drilled when he released his first pass, and the ball floated up in the air to be intercepted by San Diego State defensive lineman Trey White.
Backed up in their own territory, the Bobcat defense came up with another crucial stop. This time, Aztec Quarterback Jalen Mayden was pressured on third and 7. The Bobcats remained tied when Aztec kicker Jack Browning missed a 38-yard attempt.
Coming back on the field after a bumpy start, Harris led the Bobcats on an 11-play, 56-yard scoring drive. Harris found Miles Cross for a 16-yard passing completion and ran for 6 yards on his own. The drive culminated in a 40-yard field goal from Gianni Spetic, who drilled the field goal despite a bobbled hold.
San Diego State’s first-half offensive sloppiness continued to give Ohio the ball right back for what appeared to be the half’s final drive. With 2:37 to go in the half, Harris connected with Cross and Wiglusz to get the ball into Aztec territory. Starting Running back Sieh Bangura had a 14-yard run to put the Bobcats in field-goal range before Harris was intercepted for the second time on third down after a broken play that was meant for Bangura.
With some momentum late in the first half, the Aztecs wasted no time trying to erase Ohio’s lead. Mayden linked up with Mekhi Shaw to get into Ohio territory, and a roughing-the-passer penalty brought the Aztecs to the 34-yard line with plenty of time.
Despite subsequent Mayden completions the Bobcats appeared to force the Aztecs to try for three. After Walter Reynolds forced Mayden out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage and Austin Bradley broke up Mayden’s pass, only 6 seconds remained on the clock. As the Aztecs sat on the Bobcats' 13-yard line, it seemed as though the Aztecs would try a field goal, but the offense came out for third down.
Rather than looking for a quick completion to ensure a possible field goal, Mayden took a tremendous risk in looking at multiple reads before he lofted his 13-yard touchdown pass to Mark Redman. Redman secured the ball right as the clock hit zero and the Bobcats trailed 10-6 going into halftime.
Despite out-gaining the Aztecs by nearly 70 yards, the Bobcats trailed at halftime. Ohio’s lack of a better result at the break can be at least somewhat attributed to the mistakes made in the last two and a half minutes. Harris’ interception on third down might have cost the Bobcats an extra three points, and the roughing-the-passer penalty incurred during the Aztecs’ touchdown drive, put the Aztecs in a position to score a touchdown rather than a field goal as the clock expired.
The Bobcats offense struggled with the same obstacles in the third quarter. Once they got the ball into Aztec territory, the offense would fall just short of the end zone. In the case of Ohio’s first drive, Harris and the Bobcats made great plays, including a clutch 20-yard catch and run from Ty Walton on third and 19, but the Bobcats were forced to settle for a field goal attempt. The attempt from Spetic was missed after another awkward laces-in hold.
After another Ohio drive stalled in Aztec territory, the Bobcats' defense finally started to bend late in the third quarter. The Aztecs marched inside the Ohio 5, but Bryce Houston wouldn’t let the Bobcat defense break. Houston came up with a crucial tackle for loss on third and 2 to force a short-field goal attempt, which was good.
Houston led the Bobcats with 13 tackles including 1.5 tackles for loss.
Down seven, the Bobcats' offense stalled once again, and this time the defense gave up the touchdown. Jalen Mayden found Mark Redman again in the end zone for the pair’s second touchdown.
Mayden finished the game efficiently going 17/27 for 164 yards and two touchdowns.
Redman, meanwhile, was the Aztecs’ leading receiver with five catches for 64 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bobcats found themselves down two touchdowns with only 5:39 to go, yet Harris still showed resilience. The QB had completions on third and fourth down to keep Ohio’s drive going. Ohio’s hopes looked extinguished when Harris was intercepted on fourth and goal from the Aztec six, but a roughing-the-passer penalty gave the Bobcats new life. One play later, Harris found Cross in the back of the end zone for the Bobcats’ first touchdown of the 2023 season.
With only two timeouts left and under two minutes to go, the Bobcats decided to attempt an onside kick. The kick went out of bounds, and the Aztecs dwindled the clock down to a minute as Ohio called both of their timeouts and forced fourth down. The Aztecs elected to go for it on fourth and 3 from Ohio’s 36, but Jalen Mayden was tackled 2 yards short of the first down.
Ohio, who not long before this seemed finished, suddenly had a real chance to tie the game.
Harris found Bangura for a 10-yard gain for a first down, which stopped the clock. Two straight incompletions stopped some of Ohio’s momentum, but Harris found Walton and Cross consecutively to get to the San Diego State 33-yard line. Harris nearly found Cross again in one-on-one coverage, but his pass was incomplete. On the next play, Harris threw his third and final interception, ending Ohio’s chances.
Harris finished the game 18/42, passing for one TD and three interceptions while accumulating 203 passing yards.
Despite the Bobcats falling short of their desired outcome, Albin is optimistic for what’s to come.
“The kids are hungry and bonded together,” Albin said. “We’re going to go one game at a time, take this one and correct the mistakes. We’re excited about going home on the Frank in front of the best fans in the conference.”