DETROIT — Ohio’s defense didn’t stop being the best when it was time to continue being the best.
With two interceptions against Western Michigan on Friday, Ohio’s defense played well. But the defense’s performance wasn’t enough, as Ohio (8-5) lost to Western Michigan (13-0) 29-23 in the 2016 Marathon Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
“I thought our defense held us in there at times when they needed to stand up and hold us in there until our offense got some spark and hit a few big plays,” coach Frank Solich said.
But the offense couldn’t hit any big plays until the middle of the second quarter. The Bobcats did their usual conservative plays: run for a few yards or throw an out or slant pattern.
With redshirt freshman quarterback Quinton Maxwell struggling, Greg Windham, benched for Maxwell earlier in the season, replaced him and threw three touchdowns for 214 yards. Windham hadn’t played in a game since suffering an ankle sprain at Toledo.
“We decided to go with Greg, and obviously it ended up being a good decision in terms of Greg responding very, very well,” Solich said.
Throughout the season, however, Ohio’s offense – whether Windham or Maxwell led the unit – has continually needed to be rescued by the defense. Ohio ranked No. 8 in the MAC in points scored per game with 26.8.
The Bobcats have struggled to score. Heck, Louie Zervos, the Bobcats’ kicker, scored all of Ohio’s points in its 9-3 win against Akron on Nov. 22.
But even with the Bobcats’ inability to produce consistent offense, the defense has picked them up.
Heading into the game, Ohio was ranked No. 2 – just behind Western – in points allowed in the MAC with 21.7.
Cornerback Bradd Ellis and cornerback Kylan Nelson got interceptions for Ohio. Ellis’s interception set up a five-yard touchdown pass from Windham to Jordan Reid in the third quarter, cutting Western’s lead to 23-13; Nelson’s, a field goal from Zervos to cut Western’s lead to 26-23 in the fourth quarter.
“Those two corners played their hearts out,” safety Toran Davis said. “The young guys played really good, lifted up the team, lifted up the defense. We just fed off their energy.”
Ohio’s energy on defense was unrelenting. When the team needed a stop, the unit got a stop. Ohio was the first team to hold Western Michigan under 30 points since Northwestern held them to 22 points on Sept. 3. Western Michigan defeated Northwestern 22-21.
With Ohio’s defense allowing it to stay in the game, Zervos’s field goal in the fourth put the offense in prime position for success.
Western Michigan kicked a field goal after Zervos’s to go up 29-23 with 1:24 left in the game. Ohio drove down the field, but Windham threw an interception that sealed the game for Western Michigan.
“Our defense has been very strong throughout the course of basically the season,” Solich said. “And so they have that potential and they knew they had to step up, get that done.”
But the defense still couldn’t complete the rescue.