University of Akron football coach Terry Bowden knows his players can do basic arithmetic.
For the Zips (4-6, 2-5 in Mid-American Conference), that means four (their number of wins) plus two (the number of games they have left) equals six total victories and bowl eligibility.
Right now, Bowden knows one other thing about his players: They want to perform well, primarily because of the nature of recent losses, including a 36-26 setback against Northern Illinois on Nov. 1 in which they had a chance until quarterback Kato Nelson went down with an injury. That led to him sitting out a 27-7 loss to Eastern Michigan Nov. 10 when the offense struggled under backup quarterback Alex Ramart.
As for a 21-6 loss last week to Bowling Green? Nelson returned, but he was not Nelson. He had no explosion or cutting ability on runs courtesy of an undisclosed injury and the Zips, who haven’t scored an offensive touchdown in nine quarters, struggled again in a third consecutive loss.
Bowden said his players understand it’s a game-by-game situation, starting at noon Friday at Ohio.
“I don’t think they have any need to look beyond Ohio,” Bowden said earlier this week. “They bring enough problems themselves.”
The Bobcats are winners of 4-of-5, including a 52-17 thrashing of MAC East Division-leading Buffalo, and are tied with Miami, which owns the tiebreaker by virtue of beating them Nov. 7.
Lack of championship prospects don’t make Ohio (7-4, 2-5) any less dangerous, however, as improving for postseason play has to be considered paramount. Still, in recent meetings the Zips have played the Bobcats close. Last year, they snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Bobcats with a 37-34 win at InfoCision. The previous year they lost 9-3 in a gritty performance.
Bowden said he doesn’t know why games have been so close in the past, but he does have a theory: the Zips and Bobcats are very similar.
“I think it’s not so much about getting up or talent, but scheme,” he said. “Certain coaches live and die by their certain scheme and when they come up against that same team, those same variables go against each other.”
The Zips' chances will depend on Nelson’s health or Ramart’s preparation because the Bobcats defense will not be a pushover.
Ohio allows 26.5 points per game, and the UA offense is averaging 19.6. In the Bobcats' four most recent wins they surrendered just 59 points.
“They’ve always been a smart defense. They don’t give up cheap stuff. They’re where they’re supposed to be. They’re nasty and I say that in a positive way,” Bowden said. “They’ll get after you. They create turnovers [ranked fifth in the country in that category] and they just play hard football.”
Leading the Bobcats is quarterback Nathan Rourke, who leads the MAC in total offense with 2,871 yards from scrimmage (2,141 passing and 730 rushing). Rourke works in tandem with running back A.J. Ouellette (973 yards, 5.8 average) to run the conference’s top rushing team, averaging 251.1 yards per game on the ground.
“You just have to limit him,” Bowden said of Rourke.
Rourke is most effective running the option and with the running back often being used as a decoy.
“He’s going to get his share, but you’ve got to keep on pounding until you get a feel for it,” Bowden said. “You just want to limit the damage.”
If the Zips want things to add up to playing in another postseason, they have no choice.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ByGeorgeThomas.