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Syracuse football vs. Ohio preview: Q&A with Hustle Belt

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Learning more about the Bobcats...

NCAA FOOTBALL: DEC 02 MAC Championship Game - Western Michigan v Ohio Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a long and arduous offseason, we’re finally back to Syracuse Orange football. First up on what’s hopefully a redemption tour for SU? The Ohio Bobcats, who return to the schedule following a 100-year absence.

Since we’re not Ohio fans, we went ahead and asked someone that knows a whole lot more about the Bobcats than we do to share some things in advance of Saturday’s matchup. Hustle Belt’s Keith Gregorski joins us to talk about Ohio. You can check out his responses below.

Ohio only got to play three games last year, but the last two yielded some pretty positive results (beating Akron and Bowling Green by a combined score of 76-20). What do you feel you learned about the Bobcats last year despite the limited sample size?

Two things.

Ohio’s starting QB vs Syracuse, Kurtis Rourke, is a really promising young player. In 2019, Kurtis redshirted his freshman year behind his brother Nathan, who now plays for the BC Lions in the CFL. Kurtis’ first start for the Bobcats was the season opener in 2020 and he showed he can make all the throws with great accuracy. Ohio throws the ball downfield so to complete 68% of his throws was pretty darn good for a freshman. Kurtis also got better with his legs from week one to week three. Teams blitzed the young QB a fair amount but by week three of the 2020 season, Kurtis was really using his legs at critical moments to make the opponent pay on blitzes by extending drives through scrambling.

The Bobcats have the tools to play some good defense and core special teams. Ohio always had some big-time players under the last head coach Frank Solich, like current Dallas Cowboys DE Tarell Basham and Indianapolis Colts CB T.J. Carrie, but I can’t remember a Bobcat team in a long while that had this level of quality defensive depth, players that have pretty good size and speed, with the roster two or three deep in some spots in terms of guys who could start.

Frank Solich retired abruptly this offseason to tend to his health. What do you think of Tim Albin so far as he takes over for the long-time coach?

I think the Bobcats under Albin are in about as good of shape as they could be, especially given the sudden loss of Solich. Albin had been Ohio’s offensive coordinator since Solich was named Bobcats’ head coach in 2005 and helped create the culture and build the program Syracuse will face Saturday.

Albin is a very good offensive X’s and O’s guy, leading the Bobcats to seven of its top ten all-time seasons in points scored. A big key is that all of the coaching staff was retained and a new offensive coordinator was promoted from within so there should be a lot of gameday continuity; for instance, Albin and his four top returning coaches have over 50 years combined experience coaching at Ohio.

Speaking of, what sort of impact do you think the coaching change will have on the team? Related: How have expectations for this season changed since the move?

I’m optimistic the Bobcats will have a good season, competing for a MAC East title, but, based on the coaching change and a three-game 2020 season, there are some definitely some unknowns. What will a team that has only played three games in the last 20 months look like under new head coaching leadership?

Writers at Hustle Belt seem split on the Bobcats, with some seeing a 4-8 season while others an 8-4 year.

MAC Coaches Poll has Ohio ranked third in the MAC EAST, which I take as a good sign because the Bobcats seem to do better as underdogs.

On gameday in 2021, I see the Bobcats playing similarly to what they have in the past as I think Solich and Albin were largely on the same page philosophically, from establishing the run, maintaining advantage in field position, playing with physicality, etc.

I think there is some evidence though, even before Solich retired, that the Bobcats were going to be more aggressive defensively in terms of blitzes and, with the make-up of the defensive roster, may play more multiple fronts in 2021. Prior to this year, Ohio played a base 4-3 with some cover four. I expect that to continue but I think they will add some different looks and pressures.

From the outside looking in, what do you make of the situation at Syracuse?

As an outsider, I’m scratching my head over how the 2020 unfolded for the Orange. I did not see them, as I’m sure most didn’t, finishing the season with a 1-10 record. There are so many factors that entered into that record, that it was the perfect storm: a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, COVID, multiple injuries, etc.

I’m surprised a Dino Babers-led squad averaged under 18 points a game in 2020, down from over 40 points a game in 2018. Those factors I listed above plus possibly others must have played a part In the loss of production, because teams I saw Babers coach, like Bowling Green in 2015, could score.

I’m interested to see what the Orange can do with a full offseason and their players back from injury.

Any unsung Ohio players we should get more familiar with?

There are some guys who are perhaps lesser-known outside of Athens, Ohio who could make a splash in this one:

TEs twins Ryan and Adam Luehrman are key parts of the offense, doing a lot of the dirty work as run and pass blockers. Ryan has been a red zone threat over the past few years with seven TD receptions.

WR Jerome Buckner overcame some injuries in the past few years but appears healthy in 2021. Buckner has great speed and could turn in some explosive plays on offense or special teams.

6’5”, 230-pound, QB Armani Rogers will reportedly play some series against the Orange, and is an electric runner on the option or scrambling.

S Jett Elad made his debut in 2020 as a nickel DB and made some splash plays in three games, including two interceptions.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Is there an SU player or two that really has you concerned going into this game?

WR Taj Harris: Opponents usually test Bobcat CBs deep from time-to-time based on some of the coverages Ohio runs that put their CBs on an island and Harris running deep in one-on-one coverage is a scary thought, despite the fact Ohio has solid CBs.

LB Mikel Jones: Neither team can afford to lose the turnover battle in this one and Jones has shown himself to be a playmaker with four interceptions last season. As good as I think Ohio’s QB Kurtis Rourke will be, he is making only his fourth career start when the Bobcats battle the Orange and the 3-3-5 is not something that Ohio typically sees. A future Sunday guy like Jones coming out of an unfamiliar look can make bad things happen for the Bobcats.

What’s a fun fact about Ohio University that we may not know?

Ohio football is hosting an ACC team for the first time.

Vegas has this game as a bit of a pick’em, but since a Power Five team loses to a MAC team gets the “upset” label by default, how does Ohio notch a win vs. the Orange?

The main reason why I like the Bobcats here is Ohio’s offensive experience vs Syracuse’s relative defensive inexperience.

Ohio’s offense this year features about seven or so starters who are seniors or super seniors, a few other upperclassmen, and a coaching staff that have coached these players the entire time they have been Bobcats. In other words, Ohio has a lot of physically-developed, experienced players who are familiar with one another, so the Bobcats should function well as a unit.

I wonder how cohesive a defensive unit the Orange will field in week one? The Orange’s depth chart shows good experience on the defensive line but, outside of that, Syracuse is starting seven players who had some playing time during the COVID year but are listed as freshman or redshirt freshmen.

Its hard to see that inexperience not resulting in a few breakdowns and explosive plays for the Bobcats.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and why?

This game could go either way but I think Ohio wins 31-24. I think the fact that this game is in Athens will be a huge factor: the energy of the crowd at a 7:00pm start should give the Bobcats a lot of confidence. Also, Ohio’s young QB also will not have to sort through Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense while dealing with all the noise that would be generated in the Carrier Dome.

The Bobcats’ offense can be tough to deal with for a team not used to seeing them because they run the ball so well and hit explosive plays off of run action and favorable matchups. Ohio should be able to run the ball with some success behind and experienced interior offensive line and one of the best RB rooms in the MAC, featuring all-conference performer De’Montre Tuggle. Also, Syracuse finished 104th in the FBS last year in rushing yards allowed so this could be a matchup that favors the Bobcats depending on how the offseason went for the Orange.

Putting all the pieces together from what has come out of Athens since Spring, I think the Bobcats may show some new fronts and blitzes which the Orange haven’t seen on Bobcat film. Hitting on a few of those new looks on critical plays like red zone and third down could be the advantage the Bobcats need in a close contest.

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Thanks again to Keith for taking the time out to answer these. Follow Hustle Belt on Twitter and check out the site too, for all things Ohio- and MAC-related.