The 2022 Ohio Bobcats are busy writing what will be the most important chapter in their storybook season this week, as they prepare to head to Detroit on December 3rd at noon ET to battle the Toledo Rockets for MAC supremacy.
Their story thus far has been nothing short of remarkable, flipping the script from a 3-9 season in 2021 to a 9-3 record this year, with seven-straight wins coming in to Saturday’s bout.
Since Ohio’s 31-24 OT loss to Kent State on the opening week of MAC play in 2022, the Bobcats have earned their ticket to the Motown Showdown by winning seven-straight, dominating the competition by an average score of 38-19.
As the 2022 Bobcats work towards that fairy tale ending, we have time to reflect on the last group of ‘Cats that made it to the big game: the 2016 Ohio Bobcats, who very nearly had a fairy tale ending of their own.
The 2016 Bobcats clinched their berth in the MAC final on the last week of the season with a gritty, old-school 9-3 win over Akron. As he had done late in the season, Ohio’s former walk-on cornerback Bradd Ellis came up with a big play, this time knocking down Akron quarterback Kato Nelson’s pass at the Bobcats’ goal line with 16 seconds left to seal the deal.
The 2016 Bobcats featured one of the MAC’s top defenses, allowing just 22.6 points per game. The defense was led by a core of pro players starting with defensive end Tarell Basham, who was one of the best to ever do it in the Green and White. Basham finished his career as Ohio’s all-time sack leader (29.5) while winning 2016 MAC Defensive Player of the Year and being drafted the next year in the third round by the Indianapolis Colts.
Fellow defensive lineman Casey Sayles turned a great Ohio career into a shot with multiple pro teams, including stints in the NFL, AAF and XFL, ultimately landing with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, helping them secure the 2021 Grey Cup.
The linebacking corps was led by the dynamic duo of first-team All-MAC stars in Blair Brown and Quentin Poling. Brown was a tackling machine in 2016, leading the MAC with 128 stops and was selected in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017. Poling was one of the most well-rounded defenders in Ohio history, with a career 373 tackles, 15 pass breakups, 7 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles. Poling was drafted in the seventh round by the Miami Dolphins in 2018, and recently signed with the USFL champion Birmingham Stallions in May.
The back end of the Bobcats defense had its stars too, including 2016 MAC Freshman of the Year Javon Hagan, who created eight turnovers that year (five forced fumbles and three interceptions) while batting down ten passes. Hagan would go on to win a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2021.
The defense was filled other important players like safety Toran Davis, who tied Blair Brown that day for the most tackles with 11 and linebacker and Chad Moore, perhaps one of the more underrated linebackers in the league.
The week of the championship game, Ohio was massive underdogs according to Las Vegas, with the betting line opening with Western Michigan as 19-point favorites. Hard to blame the oddsmakers for that point of view given WMU was brilliant under head coach P.J. Fleck with a 12-0 record and coming in 13th in the AP Poll Top 25 poll. The Broncos were destroying opponents on both sides of the ball, finishing the regular season ranked ninth in the FBS in scoring offense with 42 points per game, and 14th in the FBS in scoring defense with 19.8.
To further set the stage, while Ohio struggled to defeat Akron, WMU destroyed the Zips on their home turf earlier that year 41-0. The Broncos also led the MAC with 14 All-Conference players including wideout Corey Davis, who was the selected by the Tennessee Titans as the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
Undaunted by pre-game predictions and the Broncos stacked roster, Ohio gave WMU all it could handle with the ‘Cats coming up just one possession short on the scoreboard, 29-23.
WMU found out quickly after kickoff that they were in a dogfight, that Ohio had a group of star players of its own who were ready to compete.
The ‘Cats efense played like champions that day, holding the vaunted Broncos offense to 13 points below their season average while forcing the frustrated Broncos to settle for five field goals.
A key in the field position battle that day, helping the defense, was the play of punter Michael Farkas, who bombed six kicks for a 46-yard average.
Offensively, Ohio struggled in the first quarter to find its footing but ultimately heated up enough as the game progressed to make it close in the end. After two three-and-outs, Ohio called quarterback Greg Windham off the bench. Windham went to work on a 73-yard drive to get the Bobcats on the scoreboard with the key play a 67-yard strike to wideout Papi White, Ohio’s all-time leading receiver in yardage (2,620). White went on to play in the CFL for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Bobcats’ receiving corps was terrific in 2016 with a trio that included White, Jordan Reid, and Sebastian Smith. Reid had his most productive season in 2016 including two touchdown catches against WMU. Smith is one of Ohio’s all-time greats with 2,147 career yards receiving and 13 scores.
Trailing 23-7 at halftime, the Bobcats battled back with a chance to win it late. Down 29-23 late in the fourth, Ohio drove into Broncos’ territory but came up 30 yards short of the endzone when WMU’s linebacker Robert Spillane intercepted a pass with 52 seconds left to end the game.
Although the ’Cats didn’t beat a great team on December 2, 2016, they did what the 2022 Ohio squad hopes to say it did after next Saturday game: that they played just about as good as they could and left it all on the field.
If this year’s ‘Cats can say that, then they’ll have a great shot to be MAC champs.