FRISCO, Texas — A.J. Ouellette stood on the Ohio sideline and was congratulated as the final snaps were taken on the trodden Toyota Stadium grass.
Ouellette was still in full uniform, including his helmet, which was still strapped up. He ended his conversations and walked away as he went onto the field to celebrate one last time.
Moments later, Ouellette was on the makeshift stage at midfield, standing behind the DXL Frisco Bowl trophy he had just earned. The game’s offensive MVP, Ouellette provided a fitting end to his storybook career in Ohio’s 27-0 shutout win over San Diego State.
“Great way to finish a great career, right?” Ouellette said. “Tribute to the team. A shutout, how can you lose a shutout?”
Ouellette was the catalyst behind Ohio’s convincing win, the program’s second consecutive bowl win and fourth all time.
His dominance has been present since he first arrived on Ohio’s campus as a preferred walk-on in 2014 and quickly earned a scholarship shortly after. Since then, he’s been a steady in Ohio’s locker room, offense and program.
In his final act in green and white, Ouellette showed off a little bit of everything, rushing for 164 yards on 29 attempts against the nation’s fourth best run defense. He caught two passes from Nathan Rourke, which gained 33 yards. He carried the ball 16 times on Ohio’s first three drives.
But he also picked up rushers in pass protection and provided a decoy for Rourke to perfectly run the read option, which eventually led to a touchdown run for Rourke. Not to mention Ouellette’s hurdle of a defender on a sweep in the first half. He’s done it all for the Bobcats for what seems like forever, and everyone associated with the program knows what he means for Ohio, as does the entire senior class.
“I’ve been around really good athletes, dedicated athletes, but as a group of athletes, this is about as good as it gets,” coach Frank Solich said. “Not only as what they put out on the field, but the offseason character, they way they do things in terms of leadership. It’s a really special group and it’s tought to see these guys go.”
Ouellette holds a certain place in Solich’s coaching experience. Solich has coached a Heisman Trophy winner, numerous blue-chip talents and a quarterback who went on to a great coaching tenure. But Ouellette hit an emotional nerve with Solich.
When Solich played at Nebraska, he wore No. 45. And about 50 years later, Ouellette had to choose a number to wear when he landed in Athens from podunk Covington. Their styles match, and conveniently, Ouellette chose No. 45.
That style was front and center as Ouellette continuously barrelled at the SDSU defensive front, hammering his way for a couple yards at a time. Solich loves Ouellette, and Ouellette doesn’t mince words when describing Solich, either.
“As a running back playing under a great running back, it’s just cool to learn from him through the years,” Ouellette said.
Ouellette’s saved his best for last under Solich. He’s topped 100 yards in five of the last six games. He’s had seven touchdowns in that span. He finished his career with 3,784 rushing yards, which ranks third all time in Ohio history.
Not bad for a walk on who had to earn a scholarship.
He’s earned everything through his five years in Athens. And as he was standing on the stage receiving his second straight bowl trophy, he also received an offensive MVP award; the media named him the best offensive player in the game. He smiled when presented with the award. But it wasn’t convincing.
Later, in his post game press conference, Ouellette was reserved as he wore his Ohio No. 45 jersey for the final time. He was still smiling, but this time, he was holding back emotions. The Frisco Bowl seemed like a fitting way to bow out of Athens into the lore of Ohio history for good.
“I’ve pushed it back a couple of times,” Ouellette said of the thought of finishing his career. “I came up and was talking to the coaches about it, but I really don’t want to think about it right now.”
He earned it, so let him sit in his Ohio jersey and soak it in as long as he can.