As the Bobcats walked off the field last Wednesday, there was just about everything to be happy about.
Ohio had shut down one of the Mid-American Conference's best offenses and probably its best quarterback. Ohio's offense bludgeoned the Toledo defense for nearly 400 yards on the ground. The Bobcats won 38-10 and became the team to beat in the MAC.
Yet as the press conference ended amid the joy, and brief sadness from Quentin Poling on Senior Night, there grew an unmistakable tone, a distinct phrase that became more and more prevalent.
Toledo week was over. It ended in the most impressive win of the season. Now it was Akron week: the most important week of Ohio's season.
"Nothing is accomplished yet," redshirt senior cornerback Bradd Ellis said. "We don’t beat Akron, none of it means anything. You forget about it, and you just get ready to play a great game against another really good team, keep going after the goal.”
When Ohio travels to InfoCision Stadium–Summa Field to play Akron at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, the Bobcats' season will rest on one game played three hours and 73 days away from where and when it began.
With a win, Ohio will win the MAC East for a second straight season and clinch a spot in the MAC Championship Game. With a loss, Akron will need a win, or an Ohio loss, in the final game of the season to clinch a trip to Detroit.
"We won't vary things very much," coach Frank Solich said. "You have to make sure you're not trying to build too much hype into a game because there's another game after that. Sometimes too much hype can lead to you not playing well. If your energy is going to be there, it's going to be because of how you led yourself into the game."
It is the second straight season in which Ohio and Akron will play in a game crucial to the MAC East too. Last year, Ohio needed a win over Akron (or a Miami loss) to end up with a trip to the MAC Championship Game. Ohio won 9-3.
But Ohio (8-2, 5-1 MAC) can't take comfort in the fact that a loss wouldn't officially mean the end of conference championship hopes.
Akron (5-4, 4-2 MAC) will play Kent State to close the season. Kent State is 2-8 and 1-5 in the MAC.
“Just like the NFL, we’re approaching it as win or go home, like a playoff game," safety Javon Hagan said. "If we don’t win, it’s a wrap. Our whole season depends on this one game."
Solich tried to downplay the playoff mentality and said that no matter what happens against Akron, there still will be at least one more regular season game, postseason forgotten.
"We don't try to build one game up as 'this is it fellas,' " Solich said. "We still have to play against Buffalo. Hopefully we still have to play a bowl game. Nothing is ever always lost or never always won; you always have the next one to go to."
Still, it won't be forgotten that the Bobcats can take care of business themselves against the Zips. For that to happen, however, the Bobcats will have to deliver another strong performance against a team that is still fighting to reach bowl eligibility.
An Ohio win would mean the first time that it has won the MAC East in back-to-back years under Solich. It would also put the Bobcats on a fast track for Solich's second 10-win season in 13 years as coach, and perhaps even a 10-win regular season — which has never been accomplished.
Obviously, the season doesn't come down to one game. There will be another regular season game, a bowl game and maybe even a conference title to be played. Ohio still might have another month and a half of practices and games.
But to say that Tuesday will be just another game would be incorrect. For Ohio, it's what the season has been building toward.
Tuesday is the entire reason for playing the previous 10 games, manifested into 60 minutes on a cold field in Akron.
“We just have to go in there and play our hearts out, because if we don’t, it won’t be a happy ending," Hagan said. "No one likes an unhappy ending.”