What we learned from Ohio’s 32-18 win over Ball State

The Bobcats (8-3, 6-1 MAC East) keep their title hopes in check with a hard-fought win over Ball State (5-6, 3-4 MAC West). Ohio is MAC East champion if they beat Bowling Green at home next week.

Ball State will look to regroup for the Red Bird Rivalry Trophy for a big game in Oxford against rival Miami RedHawks. The game will determine who is bowl-eligible as both Miami and Ball State need this game to earn their sixth win of the season.

But before we preview these matchups, take a look at our takeaways from this one.

The Bobcats’ defensive transformation over the course of the Mid-American Conference schedule has been nothing short of remarkable.

Sure, things like overcoming a tough non-conference board for more even MAC competition and playing complementary football have helped the defense, but more than that is happening here as they look to come together as a unit.

In weeks 4-6, Ohio worked through a few things. In Week 4, the Bobcats gave up 640 yards and 52 points to the Fordham Rams. In Week 5, the ‘Cats surrendered 736 yards to Kent State and 24 points in regulation. In Week 6, Ohio used a bend-don’t-break style against Akron’s very good pass attack, allowing for 478 yards and 34 points.

In the last five games, Ohio’s defense has been very stingy and explosive. For example, since the Akron game, the most total yards allowed in a game is 377, with a low of 260. In four of the last five weeks, the ‘Cats have held opponents to less than 20 points per game and less than 100 yards in net rushing.

Ohio continued to steal the ball from their opponents, stealing three more from Ball State to bring their total to 12 turnovers over the past five weeks, matching the total for the 2021 Bobcat season.

We’ve talked about the front seven for the past few weeks, but where the defensive improvement over the past few weeks is most noticeable is in the back end, where a relatively healthy secondary delivered what might be his most impressive game of the year against the Cardinals.

The unit as a whole was effective for much of the game, with some great individual efforts. Cornerback Justin Birchette appears to have more leverage as the MAC game progresses with two key pass breakups early in the game in third place to thwart early cardinal drives.

Torrie Cox Jr. also continues to emerge as a major factor against pass and run. Cox Jr. finished the game with seven stops against the Cardinals, including a clean shot at future first-team All-MAC defensive back Carson Steele, which not only stopped the big runner but also dislodged the ball that Cox Jr. recaptured . Cox Jr. added another stick on the third and four in the third quarter to force a ball state punt.

Ohio vs Penn State

Ohio cornerback Torrie Cox Jr. celebrates a game against Penn State earlier this year
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Safety Alvin Floyd has been particularly noticeable over the past three weeks and statistically had perhaps his best week against the Cardinals, who led the defense with 12 tackles and one interception.

After Steele was out in the second half and trailing 19-3, the Cardinals turned their attention to the passing game, where Ohio defender Zack Sanders was a key factor with three pass demolitions in the fourth quarter to secure the win. Two pass break-ups were in third and one in fourth to stop a drive with five minutes remaining.

If Ohio can continue their game at the back end coupled with the front seven, they will be hard to beat.

It wasn’t Cardinals Tuesday night, but there’s a lot to look forward to in the coming weeks and into the next season.

Offensively, the Cardinals fought hard against a tough Bobcat defense and showed good signs from a young group.

While true sophomore Carson Steele gave up his first two fumbles of the year, the Cardinals runner was otherwise impressive as advertised. Coming into play against Ohio, Steele put on nearly 400 yards against Kent State and Toledo and had 96 against the ‘Cats before being sidelined with an injury late in the first half.

The Cardinals launched into the air in the second half and showed yet again this season that their tight end group is on the rise.

Redshirt freshman Brady Hunt, a former quarterback-turned-tight end, continues to play his way toward an All-MAC nomination in his first season as a starter. Hunt’s best nine catches for 90 yards and one point helped Ball State stay within striking distance of the Bobcats on the scoreboard. Hunt’s work against Ohio brings his 2022 total to 43 catches and five points, while his 476 yards leads all MAC tight ends.

NCAA Football: Ball State in Tennessee

Ball State TE Tanner Koziol scores a touchdown against Tennessee in his first career game as a Cardinal
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

True freshman TE Tanner Koziol also stood out against Ohio with five catches for 52 yards. Koziol continues to be one of the MAC’s top scorers at his position and leads all MAC tight ends with seven touchdown receptions.

Quarterback John Paddock led the Cardinals to two touchdowns in the second half, showing his leadership by gathering his players on the sidelines. Paddock also showed toughness by playing through apparent pain in what looked like an injury around his throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter.

Beating Miami next week would be huge for the Cardinals, not only because of bowl eligibility as a reward for a solid season, but also because of the extra practice and game experience important to a developing roster. At the time of this writing, it is unknown if Carson Steele will be able to return after suffering a head injury against the Bobcats.

One of the big factors for the result this season and for the fortunes of both teams this season is obviously turnover.

Ohio enjoyed a 3-1 turnover advantage in the game, which was crucial in the 14-point win.

The plus-two turnover advantage for the Bobcats brings their season totals to about a 2-to-1 turnover ratio with 20 wins and only 11 losses.

The Cardinals continue to struggle occasionally in that area, with a loss to the Bobcats and a 20-16 loss to Eastern Michigan affected by turnovers, with three in each contest.

This year, Ball State has given away five more than it earned, lost 19 and won 14.

As the season progressed through MAC play, depth was tested in the defensive backfield as well as the running back and offensive line. Ohio has certainly turned to the “next man” to maintain its six-game winning streak.

Ohio went into reserve again against the Cardinals when quarterback Kurtis Rourke went down with a knee injury late in the first half. Redshirt student CJ Harris came into the competition with gaming experience that had been limited to a few mop-up jobs in recent years.

After fumbling with the mesh point on his first game late in the first half, Harris got involved and helped lead the Bobcats to victory. In the second half, Harris acted without turnover, looking comfortable and helping hold up enough drives to secure the win.

A critical play was a 22-yard pass to Sam Wiglusz, who made a nice catch to convert a third and a fifth, eventually leading to a touchdown. Another big play was a 20-yard run by Harris that resulted in a field goal.

Harris clearly has the kind of dual-threat skills that allow him to run the Bobcat offensive. Ohio introduced a whole host of options and screen passes with a few on-field shots.

Harris could be called upon to lead the ‘Cats to a MAC title against Bowling Green next week if Rourke is unable to leave, and idle football like the one played against Ball State in the second half would go a long way to get things done.

As of this writing, it’s unclear if Rourke could leave next week. Head coach Tim Albin stated at the weekly press conference that Rouke was “able to put on weight” without a sweat or crutches, but that the team won’t be sure until later in the week.

A final note on depth relates to offensive tackle redshirt sophomore Jacob Dennison’s contribution this season. The Jacksonville State transfer in his freshman year with the ‘Cats helped offset injury-related weakness in left and right tackles throughout the season. Compared to the Cardinals, Dennison injured his right tackle and contributed to some key scoring drives in the second half.

Both teams finish the regular season next Tuesday, November 22 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern with the Bobcats in the national spotlight against Bowling Green on ESPNU while the Cardinals’ rivalry game catches on ESPN+.