FRISCO, TX — The rain poured down all night long on the turf of Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX, a suburb north of Dallas. But Ohio’s defensive prowess was not washed away by the onslaught of precipitation in the 2018 Frisco Bowl. The Bobcats rolled San Diego State, 27-0, behind a dominant running game and an improve defense in the first shutout of this bowl season.
After demolishing UAB in the 2017 Bahamas Bowl, Frank Solich sent his newest class of seniors out on a high note again, winning consecutive bowl games for the first time since 2011-12. The lopsided victory was largely manufactured by the departing seniors, who made the most of their final game under Solich, winning six of seven games to finish the year.
“The way the team finished the season is a tribute to our coaches,” running back A.J. Ouellette said. “We have a hard-nosed head coach and it showed late in the season, wearing the other teams down. For us to go out this way is a tribute to our seniors.”
Offensively, the MVP was Ouellette who guided the unit with 164 rushing yards — his fourth-straight game of over 160 yards on the ground to close his Bobcat career. Ouellette has been fielding carries since 2014 for the program, and the third-leading rusher in Ohio history will finally will part with the program after a performance for the ages.
“It was a great way to end my college career to take a team and shut them out,” Ouellette said. “Great job on defense and great job all around. It was a great team win.”
Defensively, outside linebacker Evan Croutch finished with 11 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for loss to join Ouellette in MVP honors. Croutch led Ohio’s stifling defense to its first registered shutout against an FBS opponent since 2015, and the Aztecs only crossed the 50-yard line three times, coming up empty-handed each attempt.
“It might just be we needed a big time player,” San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said on the no-show performance. “There are no secrets. It’s some imaginary thing that you pull up in the air and fix it. Players have to play and coaches have to coach. We did a lousy job at coaching and we did a lousy job at playing.”
The tone of the night was set in the immediate sequences. After the Bobcats stymied the Aztecs struggling offense on the opening drive, Ohio elected to consistently run A.J. Ouellette up the middle to establish its signature ground game. The FBS’s ninth-ranked rushing offense bested the fourth-ranked rushing defense in a battle of contrasting styles. The heavy speed option/read option offense cashed in its first two drives for 10 points.
“We knew at some point in time we were going to have to establish some kind of run in this game,” Solich said. “If we didn’t get that done it was going to be a long day for us. So we started right out trying to get that done. I think the linemen accepted that as a challenge to get things going early and help us get some points on the board and get ahead a little bit.”
On the second of the two scoring possessions, Nathan Rourke faked a handoff and easily paraded into the left side of the end zone to create a 10-0 second quarter lead. With rushing-based programs, no reviews, and a lack of injuries the game progressed fairly quickly, as Ohio’s second drive ended with under eight minutes until halftime.
Each one of San Diego State’s first half drives resulted in a punt. Utilizing two quarterbacks, Christian Chapman and Ryan Agnew, the Aztecs never gathered rhythm in the passing game on Ohio’s veteran secondary. Combined, the QBs completed 12-of-26 passes for 126 yards in the Aztecs’ fourth-straight loss — finishing with the program’s worst record since 2014.
Ohio’s initial attempt at a three-score lead failed when Rourke launched a pass into the end zone in deep Cover 2, resulting in a San Diego State interception. But just 67 seconds later, and with one minute until the half, free safety Kylan Nelson returned a punt 30 yards to regain stellar field position. From there, Rourke and Ouellette guided the troops down field, and the junior Canadian quarterback sprinted up the middle for an 11-yard touchdown and a 17-0 halftime advantage.
The Bobcats ushered in the third quarter with a drive resulting in a Louie Zervos field goal. To close the scoring for the night, Solich’s staff elected to finish with style points. With a 20-0 lead and under 13 overall minutes remaining, Rourke pitched it to Ouellette on a flea-flicker, and the dual threat quarterback placed his throwing ability on full display. The Aztec defense drawn out of sorts after the pitch, a wide open Andrew Meyer celebrated in the right corner of the end zone after corralling the 35-yard pass.
“There was a lot of talk going on about that play because they were blitzing about every play,” Solich said on the flea-flicker. “That’s not a great play to run into a blitz... but we kept debating it and (offensive coordinator Tim) Albin said ‘let’s go,’ and I said, ‘fine, I guess.’ But it worked about as well as it could have worked.”
While Rourke, Ouellette, and Croutch made headlines for their performances Wednesday night, Solich opted to recognize a group of unheralded seniors, who contributed magnificently to Ohio’s 9-4 campaign. Offensive linemen Joe Lowery, Joe Anderson, and Durrell Wood were three All-MAC seniors who paved the way for Ouellette, Rourke, and the rushing attack in the triumphant win.
“Those three seniors showed great leadership and they are really outstanding athletes,” Solich said. “Joe (Anderson) came back from a back injury and we didn’t know if he would have any playing time this year. But he held up very well and he’s got great athleticism. He’s a great player, a tough player. And Joe Lowery, both Joes just have great size and excellent speed and toughness. It was one of the better line groups at Ohio.”
San Diego State’s final two drives finished in the red zone, but Long and the Aztecs were vying for touchdowns, not merely points. A turnover on downs and an interception, which marked the final play of each team’s season, prevented Ohio’s opponent from even appearing on the Toyota Stadium scoreboard.
“We’ve been preparing for what it seems like a long time for this game, and to come out and shut out a team like San Diego State, it feels great,” Croutch said. “We promised to stop the run and that was the first goal of the game we ran into, and we did that tonight and it really helped us out.”
Ohio wins its second-consecutive bowl game, remaining the only MAC team to have a winning streak in bowl season. Combined with the 2017 Bahamas Bowl, Ohio has won its last two postseason matchups by a combined score of 68-6, refusing to allow a touchdown in either contest. Solich’s senior class leaves an indelible mark on the program, finishing with a successful 33-19 record and a victory to conclude 2018.
“It’s been an honor,” Croutch said on playing for Solich. “He’s one of the best coaches in college football. To have a chance to play for Frank Solich, it’s a dream.”
Ouellette continued, “As a running back playing under a great running back, it’s just cool to learn from him through the years. Young coaches are at a school for a couple of years and then they leave. Him being here 14 years, we’ve just been lucky to have him stay around.”
As for Solich, the oldest coach in the FBS since the retirement of Kansas State legend Bill Snyder, coaching remains in the 74-year old’s foreseeable future.
“I’m not feeling like the oldest coach, at least not tonight,” a jubilant Solich said. “All I know is right now and this whole year, I felt great. I got a lot of energy and feel good in my relationships with the players. As long as that goes on and I’m not hurting them and what they’re all about and I’m not hurting the program, maybe I’ll keep going for a few more.”
For now, Solich and his Bobcats are bowl champions, and they’ll marinate in this one all offseason.