KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the Bobcats walked toward the Marching 110 and their visiting fans that traveled from Athens, they were greeted with cheers and a standing ovation.
Players kept their heads up, but with sullen faces.
Ohio lost 28-19 to No. 15 Tennessee on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium, and the players were understandably disappointed with the outcome. But the overarching thought leaving the field was “what if?”
What if Ohio recovered just one of the five fumbles it forced but couldn’t plunder? What if the team could exchange any of the four first-half field goals for just one touchdown to take the lead at halftime?
What if the Bobcats weren’t resigned to playing their fourth-string running back — a true freshman — in the biggest offensive series the team has faced the first three games of this season.
In a game where Ohio was picked overwhelmingly to lose, it threatened the legitimacy of one of the nation’s top teams. At times the visitors even turned to the 101,362 spectators — the third-largest crowd Ohio has ever played in front of — against the home team with boos echoing throughout the massive stadium.
Those are the moments Ohio wants to dwell on. And in terms of longevity, that’s what the Bobcats will learn moving forward with conference play two weeks away.
After allowing a touchdown on Tennessee’s third offensive play of the game, the Bobcats responded with a mammoth 13-play drive that resulted in a field goal.
More defensive stops came, along with more Louie Zervos field goals. By halftime, the kicker had already made four and Ohio found itself trailing 14-12.
“That was the most hungriest play for me defensively,” defensive end Tarell Basham said. “It was the most hungriest play, knowing we’re still in this game at halftime and knowing we still had two quarters to play.”
By then, the Bobcats had comfortably cornered the Volunteers in an uncomfortable situation.
If Greg Windham ran the ball, he picked up yards and extended drives. If he threw it, he relied heavily on the Sebastian Smith’s return to the roster to pick on dazed Tennessee cornerbacks. Smith, who hadn’t played a full game this season, finished the afternoon with nine receptions and 156 receiving yards — almost half of Ohio’s total offense.
“It definitely felt good just to get back on the field with my teammates,” Smith said. “I had a big game and that’s just a blessing for me.”
But in general, Ohio’s second half blessing at an upset slowly grew unanswered.
With A.J. Ouellette and Maleek Irons out with injuries, Dorian Brown was tasked to carry the bulk of the weight in the ground game.
But when he got hurt before halftime, Ohio resigned to Vinny Emanuele, a freshman walk-on, to become the main running back in Ohio’s most challenging opponent this season.
"That was a true freshman walk-on that stepped into a pretty big situation today,” coach Frank Solich said. “But I’m not sure if we would have ran the schemes and formations we wanted to that the outcome would have been any differently.”
Maybe not, though it could be argued that Ohio left Neyland Stadium with more confidence than it had entering it.
“In my four years playing for this team, I’ve never seen a group of guys play so hard for one common goal,” Basham said. “It was amazing in the midst of it. I’m not going to hang my head.”