The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl has turned into the Nathan Rourke Bowl.
“He’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Nevada Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell said this week of the Ohio Bobcats’ quarterback. “We have to do a great job on him. We have to control that quarterback.”
Rourke, a 6-foot-1 senior, will take on the Wolf Pack at Albertsons Stadium in Boise on Friday afternoon (12:30 p.m., ESPN), as one of the best-kept secrets in the nation, tucked away in the relative obscurity of the Mid American Conference.
“You couldn’t ask for a better leader,” Ohio coach Frank Solich said of Rourke. “He’s been tremendous for this program and he’s been great for the conference.”
Rourke, who has passed for 7,313 yards and 60 touchdowns and rushed for 2,547 yards and 48 touchdowns in three seasons and 38 games at Ohio, is one of the top dual threats in the nation. He has passed for 2,676 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 780 yards and 12 touchdowns for the 6-6 Bobcats this year.
Rourke, named to the All-MAC First Team this year, has been responsible for 16.5 points a game (14th most in the nation) and is 19th in the country with 14.01 yards per completion.
“He’s a big part of their passing game and also a big part of their running game,” said Norvell, whose Wolf Pack will bring a 7-5 record to Boise. “We’re going to have to rise to the occasion.”
Rourke’s best game this season was in a 52-3 win over Kent State on Oct. 19 when he passed for 342 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns. He has passed for 800 yards and nine touchdowns without an interception and rushed for 155 yards and two scores over his last three games against Western Michigan, Akron and Bowling Green. With Rourke at quarterback the Bobcats have scored 30 or more points in six of their last seven games.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of talent and toughness,” the 75-year-old Solich said.
Rourke is also 22nd in the nation in passing efficiency (151.70). Wolf Pack freshman quarterback Carson Strong, by comparison, is 95th in passing efficiency at 119.20.
“He’s a big part of their offense,” Wolf Pack linebacker Lawson Hall said of Rourke. “He’s unique. He can pass the ball and run the ball pretty well. But we’ve played a lot of great quarterbacks this year and he’s just one of them.”
The Wolf Pack is 106th in the country in passing yards allowed per game at 259.8. The Wolf Pack defense has also had its struggles against talented quarterbacks, including Hawaii’s Cole McDonald (312 yards, four touchdowns), Oregon’s Justin Herbert (310, 5), San Jose State’s Josh Love (405 yards, 3), Fresno State’s Jorge Reyna (261, 3) and Purdue’s Elijah Sindelaar (423, 4).
Rourke leads MAC quarterbacks in rushing this year and the Wolf Pack also has to concern itself with Ohio running backs O’Shaan Allison (823 yards, six touchdowns) and De’Montre Tuggle (547, 10). The Bobcats are averaging 216.5 rushing yards a game as well as 34.7 points and 443 yards a game overall.
“We’re on a roll,” said Solich, whose Bobcats had to win their final two games of the season to become bowl eligible. “We were playing really well at the end of the season. We loved the way (the Ohio players) were committed to finishing the season strong.”
Neither team has played a game in the past month. The Bobcats are coming off a 52-3 win over Akron on Nov. 26 while the Wolf Pack last played Nov. 30 in a 33-30 overtime loss to UNLV.
“We’re all just eager to get out there and play,” said Wolf Pack wide receiver Elijah Cooks, who has caught a team-high 62 passes this year for 729 yards and seven touchdowns. “We’re real antsy. It’s been over a month since we’ve played. We just want to get to Boise and show Ohio what we can do.”
Strong, who has a 5-4 record as a starter, has passed for 1,933 yards and 10 touchdowns in just nine games this year. Running backs Toa Taua (759 yards, six touchdowns) and Devonte Lee (293, 6) lead the Pack ground game.
“They (Nevada) will mix it up,” said Solich, who had a record of 58-19 at Nebraska from 1998-2003 and has been at Ohio since 2005 with a 112-81 record. “They are capable of beating you in both areas (running, passing). That is really a lot to prepare for.”
The Wolf Pack is sort of a mystery for Solich heading to the bowl game. The Pack coaching and player roster has changed since it last played a game. Nevada safety Austin Arnold, cornerback Daniel Brown and defensive tackle Hausia Sekona have been suspended for the bowl game because of their actions in the brawl that marred the end of the UNLV game at Mackay Stadium. Another Pack player, linebacker Gabe Sewell, will be suspended for the first half against Ohio because of the fight against UNLV.
The Wolf Pack also fired defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and two of Casteel’s defensive assistants (Mike Chamoures, David Lockwood) after the regular season.
“What we see (from the Pack defense) is anybody’s guess,” Solich said.
The Wolf Pack has added three interim coaches this month to help on the defensive side. Jody Sears will serve as the defensive coordinator and will be assisted by John Landwehr and Josh Brown.
Sears is a 52-year-old former head coach at Weber State and Sacramento State and coached with Norvell at Iowa State in 1995 and 1996. Lanwhehr was a Wolf Pack assistant (2015-18) and was a high school coach in Southern California this past season. Brown is a former Cal Poly defensive coordinator.
“Our kids are really responding,” said Norvell of his makeshift defensive coaching staff. “Our kids have jumped on. They are practicing with great effort and energy. All they (the interim coaches) are doing is just helping these kids win a game.”
The Wolf Pack is expected to get senior linebacker Lucas Weber back for the Ohio game. Weber, a McQueen High graduate, missed half the season with an injured ankle. The status of offensive lineman Jake Nelson (elbow), wide receiver Romeo Doubs (shoulder) and other injured Pack players was not determined before the Wolf Pack left for Boise this week.
The Wolf Pack has won its last two bowl games, both in the Arizona Bowl. The Pack, now 6-10 in bowl games, beat fellow Mountain West member Colorado State 28-23 in the 2015 Arizona Bowl and Arkansas State 16-13 in overtime last year in Tucson.
A dozen of the Pack’s 16 bowl games have been decided by seven points or less. A win over Ohio will give the Pack bowl victories in consecutive years for the first time in school history. It would also be the Pack’s first three-game winning streak in bowls.
“What’s great about bowl games is that it is contrasting styles and it is people from different regions,” said Norvell, who has been a part of 13 other bowl games as a college head coach or assistant. “(The MAC) is kind of solid, old school, physical football. It’s a little different style than what we play in our conference.”
Solich has been to 15 bowls as an assistant (Nebraska, 1983-97) and 16 as a head coach at Nebraska and Ohio.
“When you look at my career, I’ve been to the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the list goes on and on,” said Solich, who became the first Nebraska player to rush for 200 or more yards in a game with 204 against Air Force in 1965. “I don’t rank them. But this bowl will be as meaningful to me as any bowl I’ve been in.”
This will be Ohio’s second visit to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Bobcats beat Utah State 24-23 in 2011 in Boise. Ohio also beat San Diego State of the Mountain West 27-0 in last year’s Frisco Bowl.
The Wolf Pack has played in two Boise bowl games, losing to Miami 21-20 in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl and Maryland 42-35 in the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl.
“We want to show our Nevada brand of football,” Norvell said. “We want to go out there and play our best game of the year.”