Jalen Fox and Nippert Stadium go way back.
Fox, a Cincinnati native, grew up as a Bearcat fan. He used to work out on Cincinnati’s campus, and he went to games at Nippert to watch his cousin play home games at the historical landmark that has hosted the Bearcats since 1901. And of course, he perked up when the name of Cincinnati’s famous quarterback from the past, Tony Pike, came up in conversation.
So, when Ohio takes the field at noon against Cincinnati at Nippert, Fox will be a bit nervous, and rightfully so. After all, his parents, family, friends and former coaches will be in attendance to watch the hometown kid take on the team he was raised on.
“It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I can’t even explain it,” Fox said.
He’s not the only Cincinnati guy on the roster: Ohio’s media relations department lists five Bobcats who claim the Queen City as their hometown, but numerous others are from the greater Cincinnati area. Southwest Ohio breeds football players, and Ohio is willing to cash in on the recruiting hotbed.
Cashing in could come with success against Cincinnati.
“There's a lot of things ahead of recruiting that you want to play well for, but, in playing well, that's generally a plus in recruiting,” coach Frank Solich said in his Monday press conference. “As far as battling for the title of the best team in the state, we just want to be the best football team we can be.”
In Fox’s case, he was lightly recruited by the Bearcats, but the process never panned out. He doesn’t hold anything against Cincinnati, though. He’s happy at Ohio, and he’s welcoming the challenge of what an American Athletic Conference team brings. The AAC considers itself the sixth conference in the “Power Six,” although the official title of the main conferences is the Power Five.
Kylan Nelson has been in Fox’s shoes before — twice. Nelson is originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and when Ohio played Tennessee in 2016, he suited up at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, something he always dreamed of. Last week, Nelson also got to play in Nashville.
He’s no stranger to personal homecomings. He knows what Fox is feeling. He’s been there before. But the key for Fox, Nelson said, is to just channel emotions, check them at the tunnel in pregame warmups and play like its a normal game.
“Don’t let the hype get to you,” Nelson said of his message to Fox. “Whoever is out there to watch you is going to be proud regardless. At the end of the day, you’re doing the same things regardless of where you play.”
Early in the game, Fox expects to settle in and play the same as he would any other game. He’s in an interesting spot in his return to Cincinnati: He’s part of a secondary that’s in an identity battle.
The group, which had hopes of being the best defensive backfield in the Mid-American Conference, is searching for answers after allowing 863 yards passing through two games. The defense as a whole has given up an average of nearly 600 yards per game.
The Bobcats have had two cracks at showing their defensive capabilities. Fox and the rest of the secondary are hoping the third time’s the clichéd charm. Without captain Javon Hagan and fellow secondary member Jamal Hudon, the Bobcats were susceptible to big plays against Football Championship Division (FCS) . Both Hagan and Hudson returned to the lineup against Virginia, but yards were still gained in chunks. Virginia had three scores of at least 75 yards. Fox knows that’s unacceptable.
“Everything’s not going to go our way, but if we can eliminate those mistakes within the secondary and within the linebackers and D-line and figure out how we can fix those, I think we’ll be all right,” Fox said.
He’s not alone in that thought. Hagan knows the Bobcats have to be better. Nelson knows it. The coaching staff and rest of the defense do, as well.
And what a better way to get the defense back on track than an old rivalry. The Bobcats and Bearcats aren’t strangers: Ohio and Cincinnati have met 50 times, and the series is tied 23-23-4.
The last time they met, Cincinnati beat Ohio in 1981. None of the players in Saturday’s game were alive for that installment of the rivalry, Fox included.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything to Fox. With his family and friends in the crowd, he’s excited to return home. He’s especially excited to return home as part of an underdog defense that, on paper, hasn’t been good this season. But that could all change against Cincinnati.
“We’ve got to make plays in the air, eliminate the deep balls,” Fox said.
And as a former Bearcat fan, Fox wants nothing more than to get a win at Nippert.
“It’ll definitely be great,” he said.