Potato Bowl: An Ohio Q&A With Jason Arkley
We learn more about the Nevada Wolf Pack’s bowl opponent, the Ohio Bobcats, with Jason Arkley of the Athens Messenger.
Last, but definitely not least.
College football’s bowl season is in its January stretch run and the Mountain West’s seven-game slate reaches its conclusion when the Nevada Wolf Pack and Ohio Bobcats face off in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Friday, January 3.
Things haven’t always worked out the way that both teams expected throughout the fall, but the unpredictability is what make this game particularly exciting. Ohio features plenty of weapons on offense while Nevada has been at its best when the defense played strong.
Mountain West Wire: The last time we saw the Ohio Bobcats in our Mountain West purview, they dismantled San Diego State in 2018’s Frisco Bowl. They were favored this fall to win the MAC East, at a minimum, by a lot of prognosticators so seeing them come into this game with a 6-6 record is a mild surprise. In a nutshell, what happened this year to keep them from reaching those lofty goals?
Jason Arkley: To put it bluntly, the defense failed to play at a level that was expected. Ohio lost four games by a total of 11 points, and in each game the Bobcats were a fourth-quarter defensive stop away from perhaps winning all four. More specifically, Ohio struggled with creating turnovers. Through 10 games, OU had created just six turnovers — then racked up seven in the last two games. Ohio was on the wrong side of the TO ratio all season, and it cost them several close games.
MWwire: How have the Bobcats replaced the running back tandem of A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons this fall?
Arkley: OU has used a similar formula as last year, but with a dramatically different cast. QB Nathan Rourke (780 rushing yards, 5.4 average, 12 TDs) remains an essential element, but it’s been redshirt freshman O’Shaan Allison (823 yards, 6.4 average, 6 TDs) that has taken on the lead-back role. Junior college transfer De’Montre Tuggle (547, 6.0, 10 TDs) has been a brilliant change of pace, big-play threat, and sophomore Julian Ross (227, 3.8) has been hampered by a shoulder injury.
MWwire: What role does Javon Hagan, Ohio’s lone all-conference selection on defense, typically play? How might it change against a Nevada team that doesn’t mind leaning on its Air Raid principles to throw the ball?
Arkley: Hagan (99 tackles) has been used most often as that eighth defender in the box when Ohio really wants to load up agains the run. A four-year starter, Hagan remains the most essential player on the defense. He organizes the entire back end, is the heart beat for the defense, and can create impact plays. When in coverage, he’s typically matched against tight ends or slots, but excels when he can play as a single-high safety. He leads OU with seven pass breakups with most coming as a free safety thanks to good instincts and closing speed.
MWwire: One matchup I’m interested in how well Nevada’s defensive line matches up with what looks like a strong Ohio offensive line. What would you say that unit does best, and is there a standout we should keep an eye on?
Watkins: Two things standout about this Ohio offensive line. First, the level of play there has been incredible considering OU is on its third different OL coach in the last three years. The previous two OL coaches (Dave Johnson, Bart Miller) both left after big years in Athens for jobs in the MWC. Second, it’s a group that clearly buys into the attitude of being the tone-setters for Ohio’s run-first offense. They thrive on the zone and option schemes that Ohio prefers and live for the belly play inside. If OU is getting a good push on the interior, it could be a long day for Nevada. In pass pro, the group has been good but a notch below great. Injuries have led to some depth being tested inside, but the two tackles — Austen Pleasants and Marques Grimes — have been stalwarts on the edge.
MWwire: Ohio has gone 2-4 in games decided by eight points or fewer and Nevada has gone 5-1 in those same games, so the Potato Bowl certainly looks like it will be hotly contested. How do you see the game generally unfolding?
Arkley: Nevada is hard to get a good gauge on, given the hot-cold nature of the Wolf Pack’s season and then the defensive coaching turnover after the season ended. Ohio remains one of the MAC’s best offenses despite an exceptionally young group at the skill positions. Rourke is a difference-maker and I think it’ll hard for Nevada to limit Ohio given some of the suspensions and coaching changes it’s made.
So I expect Ohio to score some points. The game will hinge, like Ohio’s whole season, on if the defense can get enough stops and/or create turnovers. The Bobcats created just two turnovers in their six losses, 11 in the six wins.
I think Ohio is on firm footing heading into this one, and will be motivated to play well. There are fewer questions in terms of what the Bobcats can do. It’ll be a close game, virtually every OU game has been that way this season, but this time I think the Bobcats find a close out stop late and win in the fourth quarter.