Ohio didn't win its conference. It didn't even win the MAC East title. But when the conference's season ended in late December, you could make a strong argument that Frank Solich's Bobcats were the best team in their league.
First, Ohio was the only MAC team to win a bowl game in 2017. It destroyed the UAB Blazers (8-5) by a score of 41-6 in the Bahamas Bowl — not even allowing a touchdown to the revived Blazers program on December 22. The other four MAC teams each lost their bowl games by 22, 23, 34, and 47 points.
Also, the Bobcats obliterated the MAC champion Toledo Rockets during a midweek MACtion showdown on November 8. Running back Dorian Brown — who rushed for four touchdowns as MVP of the Bahamas Bowl — darted for 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a 38-10 rout over the Rockets. With the victory, Ohio improved to 8-2, owning the best record in the conference at the time.
But then, things started falling apart. In a game that cost the Bobcats a chance at defending their 2016 MAC East title, the defense was shredded by Kato Nelson and the Akron Zips. It was a surprise performance from Akron, who somehow dropped 37 points on Ohio's defense in a three-point victory.
Ohio followed up the loss by falling just short in a comeback effort against Buffalo in the regular season finale. Heading into December, the Bobcats were an 8-4 team with three disappointing losses — Akron, Buffalo, and Central Michigan. Add the 44-21 September loss to Purdue into the mix, and you can find one common theme in all four losses: fumbles.
As a team that primarily relies on the ground game, fumbles are a given. Ask Army or Navy. Ohio fumbled on two consecutive possessions to lose the momentum in the Purdue game. The team then fumbled three times (four total turnovers) in a 26-23 home loss to Central Michigan. Three turnovers (one fumble, two picks) characterized Ohio's primary struggle versus Akron. And in the closer, a fumble returned for a touchdown allowed Buffalo to gain an early lead on the Bobcats.
Without this recurring issue, we could be discussing an 11 or 12-win Ohio team. Instead, the Bobcats won just nine games. Even with several harsh defeats, there was plenty of promise on this Bobcats team.
The offense experienced a grand renovation, thanks to sophomore quarterback Nathan Rourke. The sophomore previously had zero experience entering 2017, but he quickly adapted to the college game and became one of the best running quarterbacks in the entire FBS. Only halfbacks Devin Singletary (Florida Atlantic) and Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) finished with more rushing touchdowns than Rourke's 21 scores — most among all QBs.
Nathan Rourke, QB
Rourke rushed for multiple touchdowns in seven outings, including four occurrences of three rushing touchdowns in a game. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground five times, with his career-high 165 taking place at InfoCision Stadium in Akron.
The first-year starter was a solid passer too. Rourke threw for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns, while only tossing seven interceptions. His accuracy varied from week-to-week, but with a year of experience under his belt, Rourke should definitely make progress in this category in 2018.
Moment of the Year
Ohio's signature win of the season was the 38-10 thrashing of Toledo in early November. The Bobcats entered as home underdogs, but they completely dismantled Toledo's high-flying offense and put on an offensive clinic of their own. The instructor of the clinic was running back Dorian Brown, who bolted through the Rockets' defense for an unforgettable performance.
The team experienced hardships in the passing game and by committing turnovers, but the defense led by senior Quentin Poling was lights out. The back-to-back First Team All-MAC product finished with a team-high 12 tackles, three sacks, and a fumble recovery in the four-touchdown victory, boosting the defense with an impeccable individual performance.
It was Ohio's final regular season victory of the season, and the Bobcats would receive two Coaches Poll votes after the domination.
Considering the high stakes in a bowl game, the Bahamas Bowl win over UAB definitely deserves consideration as the season's best moment. However, it was evident the Bobcats drew a rather easy bowl matchup, as the Blazers fared 8-5 (only FBS team to lose to Ball State or Charlotte) against the nation's easiest schedule.
Once again, it was the Dorian Brown show and the running back got on a scoring rampage in his 152-yard afternoon. The defense led by Javon Hagan did its part too in allowing just six points and giving plenty of comfort to Rourke and the offense.
Before Solich arrived, the Ohio Bobcats had never won a single bowl game. The school can now claim three postseason victories to its name after winning its first bowl since the 2012 Independence Bowl.
Javon Hagan Moment of the Year
Hagan was spectacular in the Bahamas Bowl, and the free safety claimed defensive MVP honors. But earning a bowl game MVP wasn't the only thing Hagan added to his collection this season:
What needs work in 2018
Ohio seems to be shifting from a defensive oriented team to an offensive squad. This reversal was noted when the Bobcats defeated UMass 58-50 and won three additional games by scoring 40+ points and allowing 28+ points. The Bobcats improved from 26.3 PPG to an astounding 39.1 PPG from 2016 to 2017. They allowed just slightly more points though (24.2 in 2017 compared to 22.6), and finished with one more victory than the MAC East champion team from a year ago achieved.
The defense will suffer multiple key losses heading into the offseason, especially with the adept and experienced linebacking corps. Quentin Poling and Chad Moore both leave the group after fantastic college careers, just one year after Ohio lost outside linebacker Blair Brown to the NFL Draft.
The entire starting front four will graduate as well, forcing Solich to bring an entire new set of players to his defensive line. Cornerback Bradd Ellis (two interceptions in 2017) is the lone senior leaving the secondary. Replacing this many defenders will be no easy task, but sometimes it helps to have the most veteran and experienced coach in the conference when rebuilding an entire side of the ball.
Some teams like Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, and Bowling Green have been up-and-down with coaching transitions, but with Solich at the helm, you know Ohio's probably going to strike the 6-win mark and go bowling each December. This should definitely be the case in 2018.
Why to be excited about 2018
Ohio will have the best and most exciting offense in the MAC, and one of the top units in the entire FBS in 2018. Rourke — Second Team All-MAC — showed limitless potential in just his first year as a starting quarterback, and the dual threat QB should take it to the next level after a year of studying blitzes, coverages, and running the option.
Rourke barely missed out on the 1,000-yard rushing mark in 2017, so there's reasonable belief to predict that the soon-to-be junior can post a 2,500-passing and 1,000-yard rushing season.
Dorian Brown will be gone, but running back A.J. Ouellette — who started the majority of the games this year — will return for a senior season after receiving a medical redshirt from his injury riddled 2016 campaign.
Rourke returns three of his primary four receiving targets, including the versatile Papi White, who serves as a threat as a return specialist as well. White finished first on the team in both receptions and receiving yards last year.
As mentioned before, Solich returns for his 14th season in Athens. He'll be 74 by the time Week 2 rolls around. Although rumors of his retirement may soon rise, at least Ohio has enjoyed consistency at the coaching position. That helps with retaining recruits, player familiarity with a system, and a lack of distractions (i.e. being poached by a Power Five team).
2018 Schedule Look-Ahead
Ohio's 2018 non-conference slate could very likely end in a 4-0 result. The Bobcats dropped a tough one to a much-improved Purdue team early in the season, so there could be a surprise team that shocks the Bobcats. But Howard (FCS), at Virginia, at Cincinnati, and UMass sound like four winnable games with a powerful offensive unit that features a litany of returning players. There is one downside to this non-conference slate.
It's hard for the MAC to draw a New Year's Six Bid. Western Michigan had to 1) go undefeated in 2016 and 2) luck out with a 10-3 Temple team winning a down-year in the American in order to earn a Cotton Bowl bid. The committee has acted extremely harsh on G5 teams' out-of-conference scheduling, so there's not even a guarantee that an undefeated Ohio could secure an NY6 bid, as Virginia is its only Power Five opponent. So it's important that if the Bobcats hope to make this their goal, they must flat-out demolish the opponents on their schedule.
But with Logan Woodside departing from Toledo, Western Michigan still in transition, the MAC looks to be pretty open to an Ohio team that hasn't claimed a conference title since 1968 (0-4 in MAC Championship Games). Expect the Bobcats to obtain at least 10 wins and compete to end the drought on the 50th anniversary of their most recent MAC title.