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Ohio Bobcats: Season in Review

How the Bobcats found themselves playing for a conference title.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Ohio vs Appalachian State Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

The 2008 Buffalo Bulls. The 2013 Bowling Green Falcons.

That is the role Ohio will be playing on Friday, attempting to spoil Western Michigan’s perfect 12-0 season. Both aforementioned teams entered the MAC Championship Game as heavy underdogs but ended up handily claiming victories and preventing the MAC from representation in BCS bowls. The life of a spoiler can be an exciting one all the same.

For the Bobcats, their last MAC title came in 1968, three years after head coach Frank Solich finished playing fullback at Nebraska. So, yes, they are due. Solich is currently in his 12th season of his Ohio career, one filled with success as he will lead them to their eighth bowl game during his tenure after Friday’s MAC Championship. Before Solich took over, 1968 was Ohio’s last bowl game, one of two in program history. Since his arrival, the Bobcats have earned their first two bowl wins (2011 and 2012) and can add to their trophy collection in each of their final two games in 2016.

But considering how 2016 started for the Bobcats, this potential ending seemed as distant as could be as the Bobcats lost to the Texas State Bobcats in a 56-54 triple-overtime thriller on opening week. Texas State has lost to nine-straight FBS teams since, ranking as one of the worst teams in college football.

But Ohio’s defense has improved since that opening thud. In fact, the Bobcats have not even yielded 30 points since the 56-point blunder in their premier. Senior defensive end Tarell Basham was recently awarded MAC Defensive Player of the Year honors, earning 10 sacks along with 44 tackles on the season. Ohio’s pass rushing is among the nation’s elite, ranking eighth in the nation with 40 sacks.

The Bobcats immediately followed up the upset loss in Athens, OH by cruising to a 16-point road victory over a Big 12 opponent: Kansas. Kansas, who eventually defeated Texas, looked much improved in 2016, defeating FCS Rhode Island 55-6 on week one before falling victims to a difficult schedule. But the Bobcats feasted on the Jayhawks in Lawrence, winning 37-21 off of 28 first-half points.

Following the Power Five victory, Ohio entered Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that was embellished with preseason hype. The Bobcats held their own as challengers, falling 28-19 in a game that was within Ohio’s striking distance for a large portion of the contest. Tennessee fumbled four times in Neyland Stadium, but Ohio’s inability to recover any of the four and capitalize off of those turnovers prevented the Bobcats from upsetting the Volunteers.

Freshman kicker Louie Zervos broke through as one of Ohio’s key players at the quarter-way point through the season. Zervos was responsible for 46 points through Ohio’s first three games, making four field goals against Texas State, five against Kansas, and four against Tennessee — only missing one of 14 attempts.

Zervos currently ranks second in college football with 25 made field goals (tying the NCAA freshman record), on 30 attempts. He connected on a career-long 51-yard field goal as well, providing a reliable scoring option for Ohio when struggling to reach the end zone.

Ohio’s following game was against FCS foe Gardner-Webb, one the Bobcats escaped with another 37-21 victory. It was not exactly a performance expected of a MAC East champion against an opponent from a lower division, but it demonstrated the Bobcats were able to bounce back from tough losses. After all four defeats Ohio faced in 2016, each one was immediately followed up with a victory.

The next victory would be at Miami (Ohio) on the first day of October. The victory over the winless RedHawks appeared trivial at the time, but this crucial win would ensure the Bobcats a spot in the MAC Championship Game. Miami started 0-6, but ended 6-6 with a sudden resurgence after entering conference play. Both teams finished 6-2 versus MAC opponents, but Ohio will be playing this Friday night due to the 17-7 victory in Oxford. In the win, Ohio showed that its defense can be a strength rather than a liability moving forward.

The unit was astute, forcing seven sacks and four turnovers, but the offense had been struggling without junior running back A.J. Ouellette, who sustained a foot injury from the opening game against Texas State. Running backs Dorian Brown and Papi White split the load in the backfield for the remainder of the season.

Hoping to a build a three-game win streak, Ohio faced Bowling Green at home. The Falcon defense had seen struggles all season, especially in a 77-3 loss to Memphis. Ohio built a 30-10 lead over Bowling Green in the third quarter, clinging onto a 30-24 victory by forcing four turnovers.

Finally displaying a solid record at 4-2, Ohio faced an improved-Eastern Michigan at home. Despite the Eagles’ similar 4-2 record heading into the battle, the Bobcats were expected to leave victorious.

This was not the case. A Brogan Roback touchdown pass provided the Eagles with a 10-point advantage with just under four minutes remaining. Roback’s stellar day through the air guided Eastern Michigan to a 27-20 road victory, setting the Bobcats’ record back to .500.

In the Bobcats’ final Saturday game of the season, Ohio traveled to Kent State to rebound from the Eastern Michigan loss. Once again, defense proved to be the superior unit, limiting the Golden Flashes to 10 points and nine punts. The offense turned the ball over on four occasions, still adjusting to Quinton Maxwell under center at the quarterback position. The freshman split playing time with senior Greg Windham, until the latter suffered an ankle sprain in the upcoming Toledo game.

Ohio established itself as a running team, running on over 56 percent of plays in 2016. Excluding the Texas State game, neither Windham nor Maxwell surpassed the 230-yard passing mark once on the season with the offense preferring to keep it on the ground.

But even with a rather one-sided offense, Ohio remained capable of pulling off a road upset for a statement victory. The Bobcats traveled across the state for a Thursday night clash with the then-one-loss Toledo Rockets. Brown’s 212 yards on the ground lifted the Bobcats ahead of the Rockets, 31-26. Additionally, the defense posted major contributions, stifling Toledo’s star running back Kareem Hunt to 50 yards on 15 carries and forcing two turnovers.

Toledo nearly came back in the final frame, after trailing by 11 late, but the Bobcats withstood their ground in the weeknight game, attaining the six-win mark eligibility for the eighth-consecutive year. Also, Ohio earned its first victory at Toledo since 1967 in the process.

Ohio sprinted out of the tunnel at Peden Stadium against Buffalo, firing on all cylinders. The Bobcats jumped to a 27-10 halftime lead against the Bulls, who would finish 2-10 on the season. Maxwell threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns in the decisive victory, one that featured Ohio sacking Buffalo seven times.

The defensive unit set the standard for Ohio, building a three-game win streak as 2016 winded to a close. But the short-week and first Tuesday night game were too much for Ohio to handle. The Bobcats started lethargic against a slumping, but hungry Central Michigan team. Fighting for bowl eligibility, the Chippewas connected on offense to build a 17-point lead. A Zervos field goal would give Ohio life before the half, trailing 17-3 after two quarters.

Although late, Ohio’s previously dormant offense finally came to life. Maxwell threw a touchdown pass to White in the fourth quarter, following it up with a 53-yard strike to Sebastian Smith two possessions later. One play after the bomb to Smith, Brown punched it in from the one-yard line to tie the game at 20 apiece.

Central Michigan scored a touchdown on an incredible catch by its tight end Tyler Conklin, but turnovers proved costly for the Bobcats. With multiple opportunities to tie the game, Ohio fumbled and threw an interception in Chippewa territory, falling to 7-4 after failing to execute on the final possessions.

For the Bobcats’ 12th contest, not one touchdown was scored. Under the Tuesday Night Lights in Athens, Zervos once again proved to be Ohio’s star scorer. Zervos lifted Ohio over Akron with all nine points in the 9-3 victory to clinch the MAC East title. Ohio’s defense was crucial in limiting the Zips’ passing and running games, preventing a touchdown for the entire 60 minutes. Ohio moved to 8-4 with the victory, awaiting Western Michigan in its final game.

Ohio will face the undefeated Broncos in Detroit on Friday night. The underdog Bobcats lost several winnable games in 2016, but remained close in each defeat, never losing by double-digits. Ohio proved capable of the upset too, shocking Toledo 31-26 in the Glass Bowl back in late-October.

If Ohio wins the MAC title, it will be a season to remember in Athens, with the first conference championship in nearly 50 years on the line. It was a solid season for Basham and the Bobcats, who will end up going bowling and attempting to hit the nine-win mark.