Last year was a year of "almost" for the Bobcats.
Ohio almost beat then-unbeaten Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game. The Bobcats lost 29-23. Ohio almost beat Troy in the Dollar General Bowl. The Bobcats lost 28-23.
When the Bobcats lost those games, the game finished with the ball in the offense's hands. The drives ended with an interception, then a turnover on downs.
The Bobcats played in nine games that were decided by one score or less — they went 4-5 in those games.
"If we would have won our fair share of those, we would’ve had an excellent season," coach Frank Solich said. "We didn’t win our fair share of them; we had an okay season. We did get to the championship game, we did get to a bowl game; all those things are good, but that's not where we want to stop.”
Solich and the rest of the team echoed that sentiment throughout Ohio Media Day on Friday at Peden Stadium. The team is close. They just need the offense to find that extra gear.
"A lot of guys that played in that game are back, we have that, we’ve been there," tight end Troy Mangen said of last year's MAC Championship Game. "Last year, none of us had been to the MAC Championship. Now that we’ve been there, we’ve got a taste of it, we want to go even further.”
For the Bobcats to go further, they'll need the offense to produce at a better rate than it did last year.
Ohio finished in the bottom half of the MAC in most offensive statistics last season: eighth in scoring, seventh in total offense, ninth in passing offense and eighth and ninth in third and fourth down conversions, respectively.
But this year, redshirt sophomore quarterback Quinton Maxwell is no longer new as the face of the offense.
"For a redshirt freshman, he’s on schedule," offensive coordinator Tim Albin said of Maxwell. "We all, and we need, for him to have a big jump. He’s no longer a redshirt freshman, so I think he’s prepared very, very well, he’s worked very hard; if we can get some guys to help him, surround him with really good, solid play, I think he’ll be fine.”
Maxwell threw for 1,252 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions last season. The projected starter in camp, Maxwell is focusing on making sure he's more prepared — and more relaxed — than he was last season.
“Biggest thing for me was I wanted to get more accurate, become more precise with my throws," Maxwell said. "Just learn more about the offense, expand my knowledge of the offense and not be so slow. There were times last year I’d be out there, and you could just see the wheels turning. I’ve really tried to focus on watching film, slowing the game down in my head, all that.”
A big boost to both Maxwell and the offense will be the return of running back A.J. Ouellette from a Lisfranc injury last year. Ouellette was injured on the third play — and his second carry — of the season.
Now, with Ouellette back and healthy, he'll have to take on a bigger role. The depth chart will have Ouellette as the starter and Dorian Brown as his backup, but after that, it's unclear. Maleek Irons, who rushed for 439 yards on 95 carries last season, was suspended and will miss the 2017 season.
“Personally, my big attack was to try to keep my speed up, being out for six months I just wanted my speed to be what it was last year," Ouellette said. "I think I accomplished that — testing and speed numbers were exactly the same.”
Paving the way for the running backs will be the offensive line, anchored by center Jake Pruehs. Pruehs was named to the Rimington Award and Outland Trophy watch lists over the offseason.
“It’s an important position, because he’s the guy that sets the blocking schemes based on what he sees, depending on what is needed for that particular play," offensive line coach Dave Johnson said. "He’s the guy that has to put the wheels in motion that make the plays successful."
The line will be oozing with experience, with three returning starters and two others key contributors from last season manning the starting five.
With Ohio adding back the under-center portion of its offense this year, it's expected the line will get get tons of work, early and often.
It won't be all running for the Bobcat offense, however, as the receiving corps has its own stable of talented wideouts. Elijah Ball, Cameron Odom, Brendan Cope and Papi White all figure to get a healthy share of touches as the unit will try to replace Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid.
“I feel at ease, I can put any guy in there and not worry about ‘the ball needs to go to a certain guy,’ because I have the confidence of every guy in there," wide receivers coach Dwayne Dixon said. "It keeps the defense honest, because they can’t say, ‘Well, we know Sebastian Smith, he’s the deep ball guy, we’ll put cover two over him and cover the other guys single.’ They can’t key on most of where our balls are going to.”
There's a sense of optimism at Peden about the offense this year and what it can be. With a talented, yet young, group of players at the skill positions and a seasoned offensive line, the Bobcats are hopeful of what this year could become.
“We definitely know that we have the guys, we have the capability and we’re good enough to play with anyone on our schedule," Maxwell said. "We know we’re capable of going back to Detroit and we know we’re capable of winning, we’ve just got to execute, we’ve got to play well. We do know, if we play well, we’re good enough to hang with a lot of people.”
In other words, they're almost there.