ATHENS, Ohio (WCMH) – Making just his second career collegiate start, Ohio University redshirt sophomore quarterback CJ Harris is tasked with leading the Bobcats to a place they’ve not been in 54 years – to be crowned Mid-American Conference champions.
At least he gets to attempt it in his hometown.
The West Bloomfield, Michigan, graduate will be in the spotlight at Ford Field in Detroit, 25 miles from where he grew up, when the Bobcats face Toledo in the MAC Championship, Saturday at noon.
Without MAC Player of the Year favorite Kurtis Rourke, who tore his ACL and meniscus in his right knee, Harris threw for 196 yards with a touchdown and added 65 yards rushing and three TDs on the way to a 38-14 victory over Bowling Green. Harris’s numbers helped keep the Bobcats atop several offensive category in the conference.
To wit: OU leads the MAC in points per game (34.0), total yards (5,253), passing yards (3,546), completion percentage (66.4), red zone offense (55 scores in 62 opportunities) and offensive efficiency (160.6) thanks to just four interceptions thrown all season.
Much of that is due to a career-season for Rourke, who leads the MAC with 25 touchdown passes and 3,256 yards passing. But Harris, who when taking over for the injured Rourke, fumbled on his first play against Ball State, shook off the rust and led OU to 38 unanswered points against the Falcons.
“CJ with his first start I thought handled things extremely well,” Ohio coach Tim Albin said in Monday’s news conference. “He took some shots and he missed some (throws), but the ones he missed he missed in the right spots. He was calm and he commanded the offense.”
That victory gave the Bobcats, winners of seven straight, their fifth MAC East title in the last 17 years. The MAC Championship, however, has remained elusive, with OU last winning it in 1968.
The Bobcats (9-3, 7-1 MAC) put both streaks on the line against Toledo (7-5, 5-3), which ranks first in the conference in several defensive categories, namely yards allowed per game (337.7) and passing defense (187.3 yards allowed per game).
Toledo’s defense has also allowed the fewest passing TDs this season (15), the fewest first downs per game (17.5) and share the conference lead with 11 interceptions.
Harris’ rushing prowess, and that of redshirt freshman Sieh Bangura, who ran for 97 yards and a score against BG, may be able to find a crack in Toledo’s run defense. The Rockets are in the middle of the pack in rushing yards allowed per game (150.3) and have given up 23 touchdowns, second most in the MAC.
Albin said offensive balance has been a luxury this season and will be important Saturday.
“To be able to win games with one or the other or both, it helps the play calling,” he said. “When you’re one dimensional that’s when it gets tough.”
Toledo limps into the conference title game with consecutive losses and an injured Dequan Finn at quarterback. Finn has been nursing an ankle injury, missing two of the last four games, and threw a pick-six in a 20-14 loss to Western Michigan. Backup QB Tucker Gleason replaced Finn but completed just 13-of-38 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown. The Rockets have yet to announce who will start Saturday.
Through the first eight games of the season, Finn had 522 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. Since then, he has two yards on 10 carries.
The Rockets beat the Bobcats in their last meeting, 35-23, during the 2021 season.
“Our football team has found ways to win games different ways – field position one week, turnovers – So it’s whatever team can find that formula. Every game is a different 60-minute identity.” Albin said.