Right when 2018 looked destined for disaster, Ohio righted the ship with six wins in its last seven games. The Bobcats saved the best for last, closing the season with a 27-0 shutout at the Frisco Bowl against San Diego State.
A new season is upon us, and there are several storylines that will define Ohio’s journey through 2019.
Is this THE YEAR Ohio finally wins the MAC?
Frank Solich started coaching football at the high school level in 1966. Each of the next two seasons, Ohio won the MAC. Fast forward 51 years: Solich is still coaching but the conference championships remain lonely in the trophy case. In the Solich era (2005-present), the Bobcats have hit the 9-win mark six times and won their first four bowl games in program history, but astonishingly, there’s no MAC championship to show.
For two seasons straight, Ohio has arguably been the best MAC team. The Bobcats are 2-0 in bowl games (winning by a margin of 68-6) since 2017 while the rest of the conference is 0-9. During these seasons, Ohio defeated the only two MAC teams with double-digit wins handily, romping Toledo, 38-10, in 2017 and obliterating Buffalo, 52-17, in 2018.
So how come Ohio hasn’t been to Detroit since 2016? In the month of November, there has been high variability in the level in which Ohio plays, especially on the defensive end. The 2017 Bobcats struggled to contain Kato Nelson and the Akron Zips on Nov. 14, falling in a 37-34 shootout on the road — a loss which ultimately tarnished Ohio’s MAC title run. This past season, Ohio’s defense allowed Miami (OH) to sprint out to a 28-7 lead on Nov. 7. Despite a strong comeback, Ohio already dug itself too great of a hole to climb out, giving Buffalo the upper hand in the division race after a 30-28 loss.
Ohio’s November schedule is highly manageable this year with one Wednesday game and the final three falling on Tuesdays. If Frank Solich’s team can close the season strong and deliver consistent performances on defense, the Bobcats should be one step closer to their first MAC Championship since 1968.
How far can Nathan Rourke lead this team?
Ohio is replacing seven offensive starters, but the engine that powers this team remains on the roster. Nathan Rourke won a quarterback competition over Quinton Maxwell during the early stages of the 2017 season. In his first season taking snaps, Rourke led all quarterbacks in the country with 22 rushing touchdowns while eclipsing 900 yards.
Only eight players in the FBS were responsible for more touchdowns than Rourke’s 39 in 2017. With a year of experience under his belt, Rourke remained a lethal rushing threat but improved his passing mechanics. Rourke threw 23 touchdowns and rushed for 15 while creating 2,434 yards of offense with his arm and 860 with his legs. The Canadian dual threat quarterback saw jumps across the board in his completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-interception ratio, and passer rating.
Rourke has been snubbed from the All-MAC First Team each of his two seasons as a starter, due to phenomenal seasons from Toledo’s Logan Woodside and Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson. With those two out of the league, Rourke is the best quarterback in the MAC. With a player of his caliber, Ohio has a great shot at a conference title despite the slew of key departures.
Running backs A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons, wide receivers Papi White and Andrew Meyer, and offensive linemen Joe Lowery, Joe Anderson, and Durrell Wood will all be missing from the offense, so Rourke is working with inexperience all around. There will be plenty of pressure on the senior to create plays, especially with his mobility. If successful, Rourke can draw national headlines (à la 2013 Jordan Lynch) and spearhead one of the most potent rushing offenses in the country.
What kind of defense are we going to see?
At times, Ohio’s defense can be harder to read than Kawhi Leonard’s facial expressions.
The defense squandered the start to a promising 2017 campaign by allowing 32 (to an FCS team), 45, 34, and 42 in Ohio’s first four games. The unit was reprehensible for the loss against a very beatable Virginia team and then allowed 27 second half points to Cincinnati the next week. After the Northern Illinois loss which pushed the team to a 3-3 record, improvement couldn’t have been more conspicuous.
The quality of competition regressed, but Ohio allowed 14 points in three consecutive games, allowing the offense to gain a rhythm and function at a high level. The defense took a step back in the season-altering loss to Miami, but a mature response was shown once again when Ohio stifled Buffalo in a 52-17 blowout. Ohio’s defense closed the season perfectly by recording one of just two shutouts in bowl season.
Outside linebacker Evan Croutch, free safety Kylan Nelson, and defensive tackles Andrew Payne and Kent Berger are just several of the departures gone from the always-improving 2018 defense. The heart of the team, Javon Hagan, is back at strong safety, as is inside linebacker Jared Dorsa — likely the two leading tacklers in 2019. Veterans Marlin Brooks and Jamal Hudson are the starting cornerbacks, anchoring one of the MAC’s strongest and deepest secondaries.
But the front seven, outside of Dorsa, raises plenty of questions. Ohio’s defense suffered in the early weeks of 2018 in large part due to inexperience and the hassle of replacing nearly and entire front seven. The house was cleaned up this offseason and now it’s time to replace a majority of the front seven again. Will we see a similar trend in Ohio’s defense in 2019 and can the unit improve on a similar trajectory?
How much coaching does Frank Solich have left in the tank?
Frank Solich was in great spirits after the Frisco Bowl win in late December. He claimed his relationships with the players and staff, as well as his energy, were at a high level, and that he’s here to stay as long as that holds true.
After Kansas State’s Bill Snyder retired at 79, Solich received the honor of becoming the oldest head coach in college football at 74.
No Power 6 team is realistically attempting to poach Solich out of the MAC. He enjoys unmatched stability and is entering his 15th season in Athens, OH. Solich’s consistency is remarkable, as he has achieved bowl eligibility for a 10 consecutive years at a MAC program. Many of Solich’s assistants have been around for a while too.
What will prompt Solich to retire when the moment comes? Is it bringing Athens a MAC Championship? Another 10-win season? Whenever the team finally takes a downturn similar and he feels it’s time, similar to Snyder at Kansas State?
Solich is one of college football’s greatest wonders, because his coaching seems to improve with age. After two 9-4 seasons with fantastic finishes, let’s see what Solich can do in his 54th season working as a football coach.