Strong safety Alvin Floyd intercepted San Diego State’s pass attempt in the end zone, knelt down, and celebration ensued. Head coach Frank Solich removed his headset and strolled to the center of Toyota Stadium in the pouring rain after a Tuesday night full of sheer dominance. The Ohio Bobcats claimed their second consecutive bowl victory, shutting out San Diego State, 27-0, in the 2018 DXL Frisco Bowl.
Solich, the oldest head coach in the FBS following the retirement of longtime Kansas State staple Bill Snyder, wasn’t going out on top after the shutout. He’s back for more.
“I’m not feeling like the oldest coach, at least not tonight,” Solich said at his postgame press conference. “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.”
Solich has guided the program to two-straight bowl wins to cap back-to-back 9-4 seasons, and his Bobcats have qualified for bowl eligibility in 10-straight years. It’s hard to remember the program Ohio used to be before Solich arrived in 2005, but the Bobcats are now certified winners and arguably the most consistent team in the conference.
Surprisingly, the mountain has not been entirely scaled. Ohio is still in search of its first MAC title since 1968, a feat which the team was an interception away from attaining in the 2016 MAC Championship Game. In the past two seasons, road November debacles against Akron and Miami (OH) have disqualified the team from appearances to Detroit. Once again, Ohio will enter a season as the favored representative of the East division and attempt to fly over these hurdles.
Key Losses — Offense Takes a Huge Hit
If it seems like more than five years since A.J. Ouellette was Ohio’s feature running back heading into the season, that’s because it’s been six. The durable power back only improved as his college career progressed, capping out at 1,306 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns as a senior. Even more absurd is that Ouellette’s final four games consisted of 697 yards — over 174 per game.
That production may be hard to replace, especially with the graduation of secondary back, Maleek Irons, who contributed 831 yards to Ohio’s ninth ranked rushing offense in 2018.
Wide receiver Papi White led the team in receiving yards each of the past two seasons, but he’s headed to the NFL waters, fighting for a roster spot for the rest of the summer. Andrew Meyer, second in receptions and receiving yards from a year ago, is another starter leaving from 2018’s talented senior class.
Perhaps Ohio’s most significant departures are on the offensive line. Offensive tackle Joe Lowery and guards Joe Anderson and Durrell Wood were integral pieces in Ohio’s run-heavy offense the last few seasons. As three All-MAC selections, their blocking paved the way for Ohio to become one of the top rushing units in the country outside of triple option-based programs.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ohio loses three of its five leading tacklers. Outside linebacker Evan Croutch, defensive MVP of the Frisco Bowl, recorded 14 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and a team-high 86 tackles to step up and fulfill the role of former linebacker Quentin Poling. Other notable defenders gone are three-year starting safety Kylan Nelson and Tyler Gullett, a solid tackler who moved between safety and linebacker.
Defensive tackles Andrew Payne and Kent Berger, both one-year starters, will also be absent from a unit which improved from game-to-game, culminating in the perfect defensive performance Frisco Bowl.
Key Returns — One Last Go-Around for Rourke
Ohio is a MAC contender as long as No. 12 is behind center.
Nathan Rourke is one of college football’s best mobile quarterbacks. In 2017, Rourke led all players at his position with 22 rushing touchdowns, nearly posting 1,000 rushing yards. In 2018, Rourke produced 860 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns but tremendously improved as a passer.
From 2017 to 2018, Rourke’s completion percentage increased from 55 to 60 percent, he added over 230 passing yards on 18 fewer attempts, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio augmented from 2.43 to 2.88. Rourke expressed more comfort in the pocket and utilized his mobility to extend plays and make smarter throws. His 2018 season got off to a rocky start but once Ohio entered conference play, he turned into a better version of the 2017 Nathan Rourke that took the MAC by storm.
Ohio’s offensive leader is back and so is the team’s leader on defense. Safety Javon Hagan enters his senior year after three strong seasons manning the secondary. Hagan has mastered forceful delivery on his tackles and was able to provide 78 of them a season ago. He’s also defended 21 passes and intercepted six over the last three years.
The secondary remains in good hands with starting cornerbacks Marlin Brooks and Jamal Hudson returning to campus. Ohio’s secondary is one of the most established groups in the conference and provide a veteran presence on a rather inexperienced defense.
Inside linebacker Jared Dorsa served as Ohio’s top breakout star in 2018, rising out from the bottom of the depth chart to record 60 tackles — third best on the team. Ohio nearly had to replace its entire front seven while transitioning from 2017 to 2018, and Dorsa’s emergence helped smooth that dramatic shift.
Rourke, Hagan, and Dorsa are three stars from 2018 that should make 2019 another successful year for Ohio, but the Bobcats’ most significant returning member is Frank Solich. Under Solich, the program has won eight or more games for four-straight seasons and in eight of its last 10. The last season Ohio finished with a losing record was 2008. Solich has been in the business since 1966, so personnel changes and roster turnover have become insignificant roadblocks to overcome for his teams.
What’s New — Who’s Going to Lead the Backfield?
Ohio averaged 42.7 rushing attempts versus just 23.9 passing attempts in 2018. It’s no secret Solich has built a ground-based power in Athens, but his rushing machine will require some new horsepower to lead it.
There seems to be plenty of open competition in the backfield. Three returning running backs on Ohio’s roster all handled at least seven carries last season. Incoming sophomore Jake Neatherton led the way with 81 yards on 19 carries. Younger backs O’Shaan Allison and Julian Ross each rushed seven times in 2018 for 24 and 14 yards, respectively.
The receiving corps returns familiar faces — just not the starters from past seasons. Junior Cameron Odom is the most experienced wideout on the roster with 50 career catches under his belt, but the Bobcats shouldn’t have any issue replenishing the roles of Papi White and Andrew Meyer with a deep group of impact players that includes Isiah Cox, Jerome Buckner, and D.L. Knock.
Once again, Ohio will reshuffle its front seven after losing some contributing one-year starters. Seniors Cole Baker and Brian Arp are expected to replace last year’s Payne and Berger duo on the interior of the defensive line.
2019 Ohio Bobcats Schedule
|August 31 - Sat||vs. Rhode Island (FCS)||N/A|
|September 7 - Sat||@ Pittsburgh||N/A|
|September 14 - Sat||@ Marshall||N/A|
|September 21 - Sat||vs. Louisiana||N/A|
|October 5 - Sat||@ Buffalo||W, 52-17|
|October 12 - Sat||vs. Northern Illinois||L, 21-24|
|October 19 - Sat||vs. Kent State||W, 27-26|
|October 26 - Sat||@ Ball State||W, 52-14|
|November 6 - Wed||vs. Miami OH||L, 28-30|
|November 12 - Tue||vs. Western Michigan||W, 59-14|
|November 19 - Tue||@ Bowling Green||W, 49-14|
|November 26 - Tue||@ Akron||W, 49-28|
Ohio will face four different non-conference opponents from last season. The Bobcats may be evenly matched in as many as three of those four contests. The easiest of the FBS non-conference opponents should be Louisiana, which mightily improved last season to win the Sun Belt West division and finish 7-7. One week prior, the Bobcats reunite with longtime rival Marshall for the first time since 2015 in Huntington, WV. Solich’s team won four of the last five over the Herd, but Marshall — a very similar program in stature to Ohio — is also looking to build on a 9-win season under longtime head coach Doc Holliday.
Ohio may have overlooked its Power 5 opponent last season when it failed to contain Virginia’s offense in a neutral-site bout in Nashville. That game perfectly characterized the Bobcats’ early-season woes on defense, which began to amend when MAC play commenced. Ohio now has an opportunity to get revenge on the ACC by taking down reigning ACC Coastal champion Pitt in Heinz Field, which should be a tough, but winnable game in Week 2.
Non-conference play is full of the same opponents Ohio slaughtered last October and November. Ohio strung seven touchdowns last year on five of the eight MAC opponents on the 2019 schedule. The Bobcats’ two conference losses were by a combined three points, falling short against eventual champion Northern Illinois and failing to surmount a comeback at Miami — shattering a 5-game winning streak over the RedHawks and ultimately nailing the door shut on Ohio’s MAC Championship hopes.
Those two are key revenge games the Bobcats must look out for. However, Ohio will have to deliver on the road and defeat Buffalo once more if Solich’s squad wants to make a return to Detroit for the first time since 2016. Buffalo is the rising program in the MAC, and most likely, the team most equipped to challenge the Bobcats in the division.
One downside of the schedule for Ohio is the litany of midweek matchups. The Bobcats end their regular season with a streak of three-consecutive Tuesday night games with the latter of the two occurring on the road.
Ohio may not look as strong heading into 2019 as it did heading into 2018, but the Bobcats may still be the conference favorite. The MAC is as wide open as ever given the massive exodus of pro-bound talent the conference suffered this offseason. There’s no more Sutton Smith or Tyree Jackson or Diontae Johnson in the conference, but Ohio gains an advantage with two of the MAC’s greatest stars leading the program.
Rourke is the best quarterback in the conference and Hagan is the best safety. And with Solich’s abilities aging like fine wine, coaching and player development could be a key cog to carry Ohio back to eight or nine wins. The non-conference schedule is manageable, and if Ohio avoids a slow start such as the 3-3 debacle in 2018, this Bobcats team is capable of building something special.
The team has been highly successful in bowl season, unlike the rest of the conference. However, there’s one more win this team needs to pull out in December, and that’s winning a MAC championship for the first time in 51 seasons.