2014 was a year of endings in more ways than one. In the spring, it saw the end of the most successful group of seniors in the program as players like Tyler Tettleton and Beau Blankenship graduated in May. Then, just this past week, Ohio's streak of 5 straight bowl appearances came to an end when the 6-6 Bobcats were not selected (deservedly) to play another game.
It was also a year of transition, as the class of 2014 passed the mantle on to the (mostly) younger players on the team. This is a team that should improve next season, and began the year with a lot of potential in its underclassmen, even before the breakout of one freshman in particular. 2014 will most likely be remembered as the .500 season sandwiched between two bowl trips.
But before we look ahead, let us reflect back on 2014, a season with an equal amounts of ups and downs and thus an equal amount of wins and losses.
The departure of program legend Tyler Tettleton left the Bobcats with perhaps their biggest hole coming into the year. Over the summer, the main question surrounding the team was who would be taking snaps for Ohio? Frank Solich had two options: mobile junior Derrius Vick or unproven sophomore J.D. Sprague. Vick won the job going into the first game against Kent State, but after a solid performance against the Golden Flashes, he didn't exactly wow anybody over his next three games, completing 22 of 41 passes along with 2 touchdowns and an interception. In his second game, a particularly woeful performance, he completed 0 of his 6 pass attempts against Kentucky. Solich decided to put Sprague in that game, and went 13 for 25 (the Bobcats lost, if you hadn't already guessed). Over the course of the season, the two slugged it out in a battle in which neither seemed to want to win; you could be excused for getting this team's QB struggle confused with that of the Cleveland Browns. At the end of the season, Sprague had more receptions and yards but had just 3 touchdowns to 5 interceptions. With both players returning next year, the Bobcats seem to be where they started this summer. Next year, injured freshman Joey Duckworth will get a chance, as will a few of the program's recruits.
Ohio comes back to win Battle for the Bricks
Miami played its best football all season long in the first half against Ohio, but a second half stall allowed for a Bobcat comeback.
The offensive line, led by juniors Mike McQueen, Mike Lucas, and Lucas Powell, did its share to help the Bobcats running backs (one in particular, who I'll mention later) although the team's quarterbacks never seemed to have much of a pocket against stronger defenses.
Catching passes for the Bobcats this year was mostly done by senior Chase Cochran and sophomore Sebastian Smith. Even with 2013's big receiver Donte Foster gone, Cochran saw his total yardage drop by over 200 yards- he lead the team with 443 yards, which speaks to the difficulty the Bobcats had with establishing a passing game. Smith had the most receptions with 31 and tied for most touchdowns with 2 (video game numbers!). Some of these lower numbers were due also to the passing game being spread pretty evenly: 9 players on the team had at at least 10 receptions and 100+ yards. For Ohio's dueling quarterbacks, there were several solid options but no particularly excellent ones.
The true breakout star of the Ohio Bobcats football team came out of nowhere, almost singlehandedly leading the 'Cats to several victories while giving Ohio fans something entertaining to watch even when the team was at it's worst. I didn't even mention A.J. Ouellette in my season preview, but he forced his way into the conversation after coming up clutch against Kent State when no one else could (a recurring theme this year). The walk-on freshman's story doesn't need repeated here (and if you're unfamiliar, read this) but his statistics certainly do. He had just 11 carries in his first 3 games and played in just 10 games in 2014, and still he accrued 785 yards, 7 touchdowns on the ground and 135 yards, 3 (!) touchdowns as a receiver. Ouellette's ability to bounce off tacklers and evade them in the open field lifted his yards per carry to an impressive 4.9 on the season. Of all the things Bobcat fans have to look forward to next fall, Ouellette is by far the best.
2013's defense wasn't great, but with eight starters returning in 2014, there was a hope that the defense would at least be better. As I noted at the beginning of my season preview, the defense only held three teams under 20 points in 2013 (one of those being Austin Peay). In 2014, the number of teams held below 20 points by the defense was, you guessed it, three. With veterans such as Tarell Basham anchoring the line, there was hope that the defense could make up for the decline in offense. But the drop-off on the O was too precipitous, and the team finished with a point differential of -52.
On the line, Basham had a decent but unspectacular season. He finished with 33 tackles, 5 sacks and a forced fumble, which is nothing to scoff at, but still a bit disappointing for a player that many picked to break out this year. Cameron McLeod lead the line with 39 total tackles. Brandon Purdum and Kurt Laseak finished with 19 and 23 tackles, respectively.
The linebacking corps was dealt a huge blow when junior Ben Russell was forced to again have surgery, putting an end to his season and his career. The other junior linebacker, Jovon Johnson, did a great job causing chaos in his first year as a full time starter, finishing with 67 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He also led the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss. Right behind Johnson was redshirt sophomore Blair Brown with 55 tackles.
Just as the offense was led by a freshman star, the defense was lead by a freshman- albeit of the redshirt variety- linebacker Quentin Poling. Poling lead the defense in just about several category: tackles (89), sacks (5), and interceptions (3, returned for 77 yards). Those interceptions came at especially crucial, helping to seal wins on a couple of occasions. Poling will be the defensive player to watch in 2015.
As for the backs, Devin Bass had a solid season with 42 tackles and an interception. Senior safety Josh Kristoff had a nice final year with 33 tackles and a pair of interceptions, a position he share with fellow senior Thad Ingol. Redshirt sophomore Toran Davis also found time as the deep man, and finished with 42 tackles, a pick, and a forced fumble.
Special teams actually turned out to be one of the teams stronger areas, and it was a good thing, too- the offense's inability to move the ball meant kicker Josiah Yazdani and punter Mitch Bonnstetter spent a lot of time on the field. Both were effective at their positions. Yazdani was perhaps the weaker of the two; he hit 17 of 26 attempts this year. 9 of those were inside the 30- beyond that point, he was 8 of 16. But Yazdani came up clutch when the Bobcats needed him to: he hit 2 game-winners as time expired. Bonnstetter was absolutely excellent, averaging over 41 yards per punt and putting the opposing offense inside the 20 on 18 of 63 punts.
The Bobcats season was bookended by their two most entertaining games, with kicker Josiah Yazdani playing hero both times. In the first game of the season against Kent State, the Bobcats seemed unable to hold onto the ball, with several players fumbling. That brought in A.J. Ouellette, previously at the bottom of the depth chart, to help win the game with 29 yards on the final drive that put his team in field goal position.
The Bobcats failed to show up against a (in my opinion) beatable Kentucky team the following week, and were absolutely crushed at the hands of the far-superior Marshall Thundering Herd. In week 4 of the season, the team finally played it's first home game, a nice win against Idaho, which it followed with another home win against Eastern Michigan.
The road woes continued with a poor performance against Central Michigan, falling 28-10, which in turn was followed by the first home loss against eventual MAC East champ Bowling Green. The score was particularly close (31-13) but the Bobcats vastly out-gained the Falcons on both the ground and in the air. It was the fact that they led BGSU in two other categories- penalties and turnovers- that led to Ohio's arguably most frustrating loss.
But the Bobcats bounced back nicely the next week in a narrow win over Akron, thanks to some forced turnovers and (again) a late field goal from Josh Yazdani.
After a blowout loss to Western Michigan, Ohio got some revenge for last year's 30-3 pasting at the hands of Buffalo by crushing the Bulls 37-14. In their final home game, the Bobcats were able to hang with eventual MAC champs NIU for 54 minutes, but ended up falling 21-14 thanks to a crucial late fumble in NIU territory by Landon Smith.
In the final game of the season, (and perhaps the most satisfying), Ohio came back from a 21-0 deficit against hated rival Miami to win 24-21 thanks to strong play from Derrius Vick and another winning kick from Yazdani as time expired. Both teams had little to play for save pride, and what looked like another disappointing game turned out to be the year's best.
It was a nice sendoff for the seniors to go out with a win like that, and it also ensured the Bobcats would not finish below .500 but instead with an even 6-6, which is the record I predicted they'd finish with in my season preview. Where do I collect my prize?