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Nelson's 4 1st-half TD passes help Akron knock off Ohio

Bobcats lose control of MAC East

AKRON – Backup Kato Nelson threw four first-half touchdown passes, and Akron held off Ohio, 37-34, to take control of the Mid-American Conference East Division lead on Tuesday night at InfoCision Statdium.

The Zips (6-5, 5-2 MAC) took advantage of three turnovers by the Bobcats (8-3, 5-2 MAC) and now need only a win next week against Kent State or an Ohio loss to Buffalo to clinch a spot in the MAC Championship Game. A win by the Bobcats would have ensured them a spot in Detroit for the second straight year.

Playing in place of suspended starter Tommy Woodson, the redshirt freshman Nelson completed 22-of-38 passes for 322 yards. Akron racked up 443 yards of offense, including more than 300 in the first half to end a nine-game losing streak to Ohio.

“There’s all kind of missed chances that stick out,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said. “We’d like to have about a couple dozen plays over again. It was not a game of one play, it was a game of a lot of plays, a lot of miscues."

Manny Morgan’s 8-yard run following Jordan George’s interception of Nathan Rourke gave the Zips a 37-27 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Ohio had a chance to rally.

One play after A.J. Ouellette converted a fourth-and-1 with a 4-yard run, Rourke ran 13 yards for a touchdown to make it 37-34 with 5:58 remaining.

An illegal block on the Zips’ kick return, followed by a three-and-out, gave the Bobcats field position near midfield. After runs of just 1 and 2 yards by Ouellette, Papi White was brought down on a completion along the sideline for just 3 yards, bringing up a fourth-and-4. Rourke tried to connect with White in one-on-one coverage, but the ball went through his hands for a turnover on downs with 2:41 to go.

Even then, Ohio had a chance to get the ball back. Akron faced a third-and-6 with 2:29 remaining when Nelson powered ahead for just enough yards for a first down. From there, Akron was able to run out the clock.

The teams traded points in the first quarter, with Rourke scoring on a 68-yard run and then the Zips settling for a 19-yard Nick Gasser field goal on a long, successful drive that followed. Rourke was picked off by Shawn Featherstone, setting up Nelson’s 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Conley.

Ohio regained control with touchdowns on its next two possessions. After Rourke ran for 14 yards on a third-and-13 quarterback draw, Brendan Cope threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Rourke on a trick play to put the Bobcats back in front. Tyler Gullet blocked a Gasser punt, and Dylan Wears recovered, setting up a Dorian Brown 5-yard touchdown run to make it 21-10 on the first play of the second quarter.

After forcing a punt, Ohio had a chance to further add to its lead but returned the favor with a punt. Then on the first play after that, Nelson found Kwadadarrius Smith uncovered for a 71-yard touchdown pass. David Burroughs fumbled the ensuing kick return, and on first down, Kato hooked up with Austin Wolf for a 23-yard touchdown pass, turning Akron’s 11-point deficit into a three-point lead in 16 seconds.

"Obviously, we gave up some big plays in the first half," Solich said. "Where the breakdowns were, I'm not sure. We just did not play well. Obviously can't point any fingers because neither side of the ball played well."

Ohio’s next drive saw a touchdown wiped out by a penalty, but then another penalty gave it a shot at getting it back. Papi White seemed to score on a 14-yard end-around run, but an illegal block was called at the goal line just as White reached the end zone, pushing the Bobcats back to the 16.

Rourke threw short of a first down to White on third-and-8, and he did not hold anyway, but a targeting penalty against Alvin Davis gave Ohio a first-and-goal. Ouellette was stopped a yard shy of the end zone on third down, and Solich elected for a 19-yard Louie Zervos field goal to tie the game at 24.

Akron defensive lineman Alvin Camara was called for targeting on Brown’s touchdown run, and the Zips were able to overcome the loss of two starters plus a total of 16 penalties for 167 yards.

Once again, the Zips did not stay down for long. Smith beat Ohio cornerback Jalen Fox deep for a 54-yard touchdown pass barely a minute later. A botched snap on the extra point left the score at 30-24.

"Just not communicating well," Ohio safety Javon Hagan said. "It's not an excuse; we just have to communicate more. We thought we could bounce back in the second half, and we didn't."

Ohio moved across midfield on its final possession that began with less than a minute left in the first half, but time ran out.

Zervos kicked a 46-yard field goal with 3:17 left in the third quarter to make it a 30-27 game before Featherstone’s interception helped Akron extend its advantage.

Rourke continued to impress with his legs, gaining a career-high 165 yards on 15 carries and matching the school record for rushing touchdowns in a season with 19. But he was not accurate passing, finishing 9 of 22 for 110 yards with two interceptions.

Ohio also struggled to get its running backs going. Ouellette had just 74 yards on 24 carries, and Brown ran only twice for 5 yards before exiting with a hip pointer sustained on his touchdown. White’s two carries were good for 38 yards, and he was by far the top receiver with 68 yards on six receptions.

As usual, the Bobcats’ defense was strong against the run, limiting Manny Morgan to 55 yards on 14 carries. Nelson added 45 yards on 14 attempts but was not sacked. Smith’s two touchdown catches totaled 125 yards, and Tra’Von Chapman had eight receptions for 65 yards.

Defensively for Ohio, Hagan had 14 tackles, while defensive end Kevin Robbins made three tackles for loss.

The Bobcats and Bulls play the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 24, at a time to be determined at UB Stadium.

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