Quinton Maxwell spent all offseason hearing about Nathan Rourke being the next great quarterback.
The Bobcats brought Rourke to Mid-American Conference Media Day in Detroit, their entire season ticket promotion push is centered around a picture of him, even some parking passes have his picture on them.
Nathan Rourke is supposed to be the face of the Ohio football program.
Does Ohio finally have a quarterback to lead it to a conference championship?
Then Rourke struggled in the first three series of Saturday’s game against Howard. Maxwell impressed and led Ohio to the win, his first win since 2016.
Beating a Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS, school might not merit future starting quarterback reps, but it does prove Maxwell is more than capable of moving the Ohio offense down field in critical moments.
Still wearing his uniform, his helmet on the ground and his bandana off, Maxwell seemed like he was finally at peace after Saturday’s game. He threw two touchdown passes and rushed for two more after entering the game at the start of the second quarter.
“For me personally, it was kind of reassuring, saying, ‘All right, I'm settled in. I'm into the flow of the game,’” Maxwell said after Saturday’s game. “It felt good just to kind of get that out of the way, and we can get on and get rolling.”
Maxwell started the season opener against Hampton last season but only played in two series before exiting. A week later against Purdue, he attempted just six passes and was pulled again. That was the last time he started a game for Ohio.
Whether it was the plan to keep Maxwell in or put Rourke back in is unknown. Either way, it’s obvious that Rourke didn’t bring his best game. Maxwell did.
But this is definitive: On Saturday, Quinton Maxwell turned one of the most secure quarterback jobs in the Group of Five into a noteworthy quarterback question.
To fully understand how sudden the quarterback change was Saturday, it’s important to comprehend what Rourke did for the program last season.
Rourke led the Bobcats to a 9-4 record in 2017, throwing for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns in the process. He firmly took control of the starting job for — what seemed obvious — the rest of his time in Athens. He rushed for 21 touchdowns, too, the most among quarterbacks in Division I football.
He did enough during his sophomore season to warrant some national buzz heading into 2018. The quarterback has found his name on watch lists for Maxwell, O’Brien and Manning awards.
As the 2017 breakout star of the MAC, Rourke elevated Ohio’s status to top dog in the conference. Both the coaches and media polls chose the Bobcats as their favorite to win the conference, factoring in that Rourke’s game would improve in his second season starting.
On Saturday against Howard, he played in three series and went 2 of 8. He had three chances to punch in a touchdown from the 5-yard line on his last series and failed, forcing a slant pass and rolling out to almost throw an interception.
Rourke’s first quarter of the season didn’t impress anyone. For the rest of the game, he stood on the sidelines, holding his collar. He warmed up a few times and walked over to Maxwell to give him advice. But the nonverbal communication seemed clear: He was shocked that he wasn’t the one leading the Bobcats down the field.
Rourke’s answers were short and calculated after Tuesday’s practice. He admitted it was the first time he’d ever been benched in his football career.
Were you shocked or embarrassed? “Lot of emotions.”
What did you do on the sidelines to make sure your team got the win? “I remembered I have a (captain's patch) on my chest."
Was it unexpected for you at all? “Yes, for sure.”
Being taken out of the game? “No, it’s not something I saw coming.”
What’d you do after the game? “Went and talked to my parents. Tough conversation.”
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Coach Frank Solich is a believer in having two able quarterbacks at all times. But to say that Saturday wasn’t the start of possible quarterback questioning may be pushing the fold.
In his 13 full seasons at Ohio, four have seen Solich equip two quarterbacks that attempted more than 100 passes. In those four seasons, his team is 28-23 (.549 winning percentage). In the other nine, in which he stuck to one main quarterback, the Bobcats were 69-48 (.589 percent) and appeared in three of four MAC Championship Games.
Solich will say that whoever is playing at quarterback doesn’t impact the offense, but it does. It messes with the tempo, the chemistry between wide receivers and communication with the offensive line.
“We planned on playing (Maxwell) in the game, not at the end, but early,” Solich said. “We never give him a certain series, we never say 'we'll give you three series and then another guy is coming in.' I never do that. It's a matter of feel and trying to win the ball game. We gave Quinton a shot, and it seemed to be working.”
It may have worked against an FCS team. Still, in the fourth quarter, Maxwell didn’t attempt a pass.
With Rourke out, the Bobcats also couldn’t execute the option as well, which would’ve been perfect at the end of the game. They couldn’t run the ball with much authority, finishing with just 146 rushing yards.
* * *
Standing on the turf at Peden Stadium on a warm, Saturday afternoon in August, Maxwell didn’t hesitate to answer the questions about his turbulent career.
It’s no secret that Maxwell’s best games at Ohio have come against FCS opponents, but he’s performed well against big opponents in key situations. The 2016 win at Toledo? He engineered that, throwing for 159 yards and two touchdown passes as just a redshirt freshman.
He thinks the turning point in his career at Ohio came in the 2016 MAC Championship Game. He quickly exited after the first quarter, looking skittish and only attempting one pass.
Maxwell doesn’t deny he played poorly. Talking about it almost two years removed, he admits he feels awful that 2016 seniors ended their careers on that note.
“I played in that game. I know what it felt like walking up that tunnel after that game,” he said. “Watching Western (Michigan) hold up the trophy. It hurts. I know I didn’t play as well as I needed to. I didn’t perform. I feel like I let my teammates and myself down. I maybe look back on it in a way that different than others. I relive that moment often.”
Maxwell's really tried to mature since then, which means feeling more comfortable in critical situations.
The maturation process was seen in the way he handled his benching last season. Maxwell put his head down and went back to work. He took it as well as anyone who was benched just two games and a few drives into the year. His smile may have faded when answering questions about how he felt about the situation, but that’s just a natural human reaction.
Quarterbacks coach Scott Isphording had to deal with the rise of Rourke and fall of Maxwell at the same time. He had to make sure the Bobcats were winning football games while making sure that Maxwell wasn’t completely checked out. Isphording handled it well, which was displayed Saturday in Maxwell’s return to the field.
“I think it’s attributed to what we have in this room that he’s come back,” Isphoriding said in the spring. “I think he understands that he played a lot because JD Sprague decided not to play his senior year. Just how important it is to our guy to have two able guys. I think it’s the makeup he has.”
But now, Solich has a larger problem on his hands. In a week and a half, he and the Bobcats will head to Charlottesville, Virginia. It will be Ohio’s first Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, opponent of the season.
Following Tuesday’s practice, Solich made it known that Rourke will be the starter against the Cavaliers.
Maxwell said Isphording sat down with Rourke and Maxwell to go over what the plan is for Virginia. Each will see time in the game, and, as Solich said, whoever plays better will see more time than the other.
Yes, it’ll just be Week 2 of the season. But quarterback battles are usually determined in the spring and summer, not the season. It isn’t a quarterback competition, but it’s the closest the Bobcats will come to announcing one.
And based on Rourke's comments, it doesn’t seem like he appreciated that he had such a short sample size.
At the end of the day, Ohio will have to eventually do what nearly every other football program in the country is doing: playing just one quarterback for the entire game.
“I think there’s a good chance that we’re going to share snaps,” Maxwell said. “Both of us know that we can go in there and perform well. Whatever happens will happen. All I can do is control my attitude and effort.”