The Ohio Bobcats have buried themselves into holes all season long. In the team’s four losses this season they have been outscored 59-0 in the first quarter. Between successive three and outs to start the game and the defense biting on big plays, Ohio has not been able to come together as a whole unit following kickoff.
Ohio was able to write a different script on Saturday at Peden Stadium in a 23-20 victory against Akron that was decided by a last-minute Josiah Yazdani field goal. It all started with Ohio coach Frank Solich selecting to receive the opening kickoff; that way the Bobcats had the chance to strike first and Akron was prevented from jumping on top of Ohio in the first few minutes.
“We came into the game knowing that the past two weeks we had gotten down early, so we wanted to go into the game and make sure we did what we needed to do … so we didn’t give them a head start and play catch up,” Ohio linebacker Jovon Johnson said.
The Bobcats started off the game with something that had been absent in the offense’s repertoire: a spark of momentum created by a big-play strike. Ohio quarterback J.D. Sprague delivered in that regard, hooking up with wide receiver Ian Dixon for a 49-yard score on the fourth play of the game.
Akron responded swiftly with an opening possession touchdown drive of its own, but an Ohio fumble on the ensuing kickoff put the Bobcat defense right back on the field after allowing a score. The ‘Cats were not intimidated, and Ohio defensive back Devin Bass came away with a crucial pick on an Akron fourth-down attempt.
Following Akron’s first score, the Ohio defense remained honest to the Akron offense the rest of the first half, even in tight situations. With the Zips driving and penetrating the Ohio 30-yard line, they looked to take the lead into the half.
But the Bobcat defense wanted the same for its offensive unit. Ohio stuffed Woodson on a fourth-down draw at its 29-yard line. The offense then took the ball 48 yards in 49 seconds to set up a Josiah Yazdani field goal that put the Bobcats ahead 10-7 heading into halftime.
“We feel confident that the offense can get the job done,” Johnson said about the defense’s extra motivation on Saturday.
The second half would be when Ohio (4-4, 2-2 MAC) was really tested. The Zips scored a touchdown near the midpoint of the third quarter, giving Akron its first lead of the game by a count of 17-13. The Bobcat defense responded well to the Zips’ challenges in the first half, but it was the offense’s turn to attempt a retort.
Two penalties, a few good reads by Sprague and a couple of broken tackles by running back A.J. Ouellette put the Bobcats in position to regain the lead. Sprague then found Ouellette wide open in the end zone for the three-yard score, putting Ohio up 20-17.
“I would say the best word is resilient,” Sprague said about how he would describe the offense’s battle against Akron.
Akron (4-3, 2-1 MAC) eventually knotted things up at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and from there it was a back-and-forth defensive battle. Both teams were waiting for the other to make the first offensive mistake, and that came for Ohio with just under four minutes to go in the game. Bass continued his big day by forcing a fumble from Akron wide receiver Andrew Pratt, and Johnson was there to pick it up and take it to to the Akron 21-yard line.
“One thing we really needed to get done was to win the turnover ratio, and it’s something we’ve struggled with all year long,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “But in winning the turnover battle, that was huge in helping us win this ball game.”
The critical turnover set up Yazdani with the go-ahead 22-yard attempt with two minutes to go. Ohio safety Josh Kristoff then sealed the deal at the end with an interception; a testament to how all three phases finally came together to beat Akron at Peden Stadium.