On Nov. 8, the Bobcats made a statement: They were the best team in the Mid-American Conference.
Senior night at Peden Stadium was a success, as Ohio played what felt like its season-defining game against Toledo, the MAC’s preseason favorite. In a battle of heavyweight offenses, both averaging 39-plus points and 450-plus yards, the Bobcats threw all the punches in a 38-10 romp.
Ohio center Jake Pruehs said after the game some Toledo players told him, “See you in a few weeks,” alluding to a rematch in the conference championship. Surely, Ohio shared the sentiment.
The Bobcats were 8-2 with a world of possibilities ahead, including the first 11-win season in program history, a top-25 ranking and the first conference title since 1968.
Their pass defense, a weak spot most of the season, held up against Toledo’s senior stud Logan Woodside, the guy who led the nation in passing touchdowns (45) last year. He was sacked four times and found the end zone just once.
“You'd like to think that the Toledo win … can help you build that momentum,” coach Frank Solich said two days later. “Football is a funny game. Obviously that momentum can change in an instant.”
It took more than an instant, but by season’s end the Bobcats had gone from kings to commoners in the MAC, posting back-to-back losses that altered their path from historic to ho-hum.
These players aimed much higher than a bid to the Bahamas Bowl, which was announced Sunday. At times, they proved they deserved better.
Nathan Rourke, a sophomore quarterback who started the year on the bench, set the program’s rushing touchdown record.
Quentin Poling, Ohio’s all-time tackle leader, anchored a defense than finished 10th in the nation in rush yards allowed despite losing three starters to the NFL this past April.
So how did Ohio let a storybook season slip away?
Riding the high of a chest-beating win over Toledo, the Bobcats travelled to Akron on a short week with a chance to clinch the MAC East. With two games to go in the season, the Zips weren’t even bowl eligible — yet they had a chance to take the division lead with a win.
And they did just that, dishing Ohio a crushing 37-34 defeat.
College football is unforgiving in that way. Ohio’s seemingly “big” win over Toledo meant nothing. If the Bobcats had beaten the Zips instead of the Rockets, they’d be playing for a conference championship.
The Toledo win merely granted Ohio a sense of what it could accomplish. Solich consistently preaches a not too high, not too low mentality for his players, but maybe trouncing the Rockets made his players feel as invincible as they looked.
In must-win games, however, mistakes and missed chances are magnified. Like when Ohio allowed four first-half touchdowns to Akron quarterback Kato Nelson — the backup Ohio safety Javon Hagan said his team didn’t prepare for.
Or when the Bobcats committed three turnovers — all of which turned into touchdowns on drives starting inside the Ohio 30-yard line — and registered none themselves. Akron took 16 penalties for 167 yards, but still averaged better starting field position and outgained Ohio by 48 yards.
The Bobcats are the better team, but they didn’t play like it in the confines of a 60-minute comparison.
“It took a while to get over the Akron game for these guys,” Solich said Friday. “And I appreciate that in them, that they were affected by it. But then, as time went on, they got back to where they wanted to win football and play winning football.”
They didn’t win Friday against 6-6 Buffalo, but it didn’t matter. Akron clinched the MAC East Division three days prior against Kent State, ousting Ohio from a spot in the conference championship game.
A silver lining finish remains possible, when the Bobcats face UAB with a shot at their third-ever bowl win.
And it’s not too soon to think about 2018, when Rourke returns along with lead running back A.J. Ouellette, most of the offensive line, three-quarters of the secondary and others.
But this group knows it missed a chance at history.
One game can make or break a team’s season. Unfortunately for Ohio, that game wasn’t against Toledo, which held up its end of the bargain and plays for the MAC title this weekend.
No, Ohio’s season flipped against Akron, which the Bobcats can watch Saturday at noon on ESPN while planning their trip to the Bahamas.