BOISE, Idaho — After a few last-ditch laterals from Utah State, Ohio’s Octavius Leftwich grabbed the football out of the air and fell to the ground as his overjoyed teammates rushed onto the field.
Congrats, Bobcats. This spud’s for you.
The Bobcats overcame an awful start to defeat the Aggies 24-23 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, marking their first bowl win in six tries. In the process, Ohio notched its first 10-win season since 1968.
Ohio (10-4) finished with a winning record and won the last game of the season — a combination the team had not accomplished since 2000.
“There's been a lot of great wins here, and I appreciate every one that we get,” said coach Frank Solich, who had not won a bowl game since the 2000 Alamo Bowl with Nebraska. The win against the Aggies was his 50th with the Bobcats.
“This one is obviously kind of a goal-seeking answer to what these guys wanted to get done at the beginning of the year and winning a bowl game, not just getting there,” Solich said. “To accomplish that, to get the first win in the history of Ohio is meaningful to me, these players, our staff and everyone associated with the program.”
The win was especially meaningful for the senior class, which has played in five of the team’s nine championship games and bowl appearances. With a new up-tempo offense, many returning starters and a bright young quarterback, 2011 looked like the Bobcats’ year to notch a conference championship or a bowl title.
And it was that class that provided most of the fireworks late in the game. Senior wide receiver LaVon Brazill entered the game with a torn meniscus and was listed as a game-time decision. In his final game with the Bobcats, Brazill picked up 108 yards on eight catches, including an acrobatic touchdown grab and a crucial fourth-down catch that put his team within a foot of the end zone.
Senior linebacker and captain Noah Keller anchored the Bobcats’ defense with 11 tackles. His fiery play kept the game close in the first half and inspired his teammates one final time.
“Especially being a senior, we wanted to win the conference championship pretty bad,” Keller said. “We didn't get that done, but at least we got a shot at redemption.”
Ohio’s troubles started early against Utah State. The Bobcats stopped the Aggies at the goal line on the opening drive of the game, but quarterback Tyler Tettleton lost the handle on the football in the end zone and dove out the back of the end zone for a Utah State safety.
Paul Hershey’s ensuing free kick went out of bounds, giving the Aggies the ball at midfield. The Bobcats initially forced a field goal attempt, but a personal foul on the play gave Utah State new life. Three plays later, quarterback Adam Kennedy found Tarren Lloyd in the end zone for the score.
At that point, Utah State had outgained Ohio 123 yards to -1.
After trading several punts, Ohio got on the board. Tight end Derek Roback picked up his first career touchdown on a 26-yard pass from Tettleton.
Utah State again moved the ball effectively on its next drive, but place kicker Josh Thompson pushed a 39-yard field goal attempt wide right.
Early in the second half, the Aggies renewed their largest lead of the game on a 63-yard run by Michael Smith, who proved to be more dangerous than highly scouted junior running back Robert Turbin.
Ohio kicker Matt Weller chipped away at the lead with a 32-yard field goal on the Bobcats’ next possession. But Utah State responded immediately with a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended with Smith’s second rushing touchdown of the night.
Trailing by a game-high 13 points with 22 minutes to play, Tettleton stepped up his game. He connected with Brazill despite double coverage for a dazzling 44-yard scoring play.
The defenses then forced a field position battle via punts. Paul Hershey gave the Bobcats an advantage, as his final kick of the night put the Aggies at their own 7-yard line. Ohio forced a three-and-out for the first time all night, and the offense took over at its 39-yard line with 2:02 to play.
Tettleton found senior wideout Riley Dunlop for a 9-yard gain, then rushed for 15 more. Three plays later, the Bobcats faced a critical fourth down with 45 seconds remaining. Utah State blitzed, and a pressured Tettleton tossed a quick pass to Brazill, who made the catch and was downed just shy of the goal line.
The ruling on the play was changed three times before the officiating crew decided that Brazill made the catch but did not score.
“I saw the safety looking like he was going to blitz, so I just took the quickest angle I could to make a play on the ball,” Brazill said.
After a quarterback sneak for no gain, Tettleton faked a run up the gut before darting toward the pylon to his right. He dove inside the orange marker into the orange end zone to tie the game. Weller gave the Bobcats their first and only lead on an extra-point attempt that seemed to have more oomph — or in this case, more starch — than any other he kicked all season.
Tettleton finished the game with 19 completions on 26 attempts. He threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns. He is now seventh in program history in career passing yards.
Smith and Turbin finished with more than 100 yards rushing for the Aggies. Senior Donte Harden racked up 47 rushing yards en route to breaking Ohio’s single-season all-purpose yards record.
“I feel relieved after every win,” Solich said. “They're never easy to come by. Over my career, I've been fortunate to be on teams that never quit, and the end result if you don’t quit is you’re going to win your fair share of ball games.”