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Wednesday, October 12,2011

Margin of error slim for injury-depleted Ohio Bobcats

By Adam Flango

For the Ohio Bobcats, Saturday's loss hurt. Maybe it was not James Franco in the movie "127 Hours" self-amputation pain, but it was definitely more than a scratch.

Ohio (4-2, 1-1 MAC) left Buffalo with more than a one added to the loss column. Starting strong safety Xavier Hughes, who leads the team with three interceptions, fractured his shoulder and will miss the remainder of the season. Defensive tackle Carl Jones, one of the last remaining opening day starters on the line, was also injured against Buffalo. While the team has not commented on his injury, Jones' arm was in a sling and he was wearing sweatpants while watching practice Tuesday from the stands, and it does not seem likely he will return soon.

These injuries are added to a team, more specifically, a defense, that has been ravaged by them. Neal Huynh, who has anchored the defensive line, is out indefinitely with a knee injury. Senior starting linebackers Noah Keller and Eric Benjamin have played hurt in every game and likely will not be fully healthy this season.

To combat the rash of injuries on defense, Ohio has resorted to lifting the redshirt from freshman defensive lineman Antwan Crutcher, who split reps with the first- and second-team defense on Tuesday.

The offense has not been spared either. Running back Donte Harden was not completely healthy against Buffalo. Second-string tight end Zach Clark is out for the season with a knee injury.

What exactly do you call the opposite of an embarrassment of riches?

Solich concedes that the injuries have hurt but said on his radio show Monday that he is confident in the team's depth. But after a defense consisting of a nearly 50-50 split between regular starters and back-ups was gashed for 510 yards, it's hard to believe the confidence.

The fact is, Ohio's depth may not be strong enough to withstand so many injuries. Coming into the season, the Bobcats had a very young secondary. With Hughes out for the year and starting cornerback Omar Leftwich not fully recovered from an injury, Ohio will likely rely on a mix of freshmen and sophomores to fill the vacant positions.

The injuries suffered during the one-point, heartbreaking loss Saturday compounded the already difficult situation Ohio is now in. The loss to Buffalo did not wreck hopes of a MAC East title, but the Bobcats now have just about as much wiggle room as Franco had when he was wedged between a boulder and a wall in "127 Hours."

Each of the past three winners of the MAC East has had only one conference loss. There seems to be more parity in the conference this season, with no team distinguishing itself as the team to beat, but Ohio cannot rely on other teams losing.

If the Bobcats want to make a trip to Detroit for the MAC title game this season, they may not to be able to fall again. Temple, Ohio's stiffest competition in the East, has a punishing ground game and has crushed two of their three MAC opponents by a combined score of 83-3.

One of those opponents was Ball State, Ohio's opponent for Saturday's homecoming game. The Cardinals lost 42-0 at home to Temple last week and have been outscored 79-7 in two road losses season. (It should be noted that both of those losses came against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time, including then No. 1 Oklahoma two weeks ago.)

Ohio's defense will need to mature quickly to avoid another disappointing loss. With new players filling roles on the line and in the secondary, the linebackers need to be able to shed more blocks and plug more gaps than normal. Ball State may average only 333.8 offensive yards per game, but Buffalo averaged only 336 yards per game before running roughshod over Ohio last week.

On Saturday, the offense will be there and ready to play. Through six games, Ohio is averaging 33 points per game, its highest total in 1968, and 437 yards per game, which would be a school single-season record.

With that sort of production from the offense, the onus is on the defense to improve drastically. A loss will send the Bobcats spiraling back to mediocrity. But if the suddenly young defense can adapt to a difficult situation, Ohio will once again hold the upper hand in the MAC East.


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