Austen Pleasants draped his long red hair over his shoulder pads after another hot practice inside the Walter Fieldhouse. The left tackle looked more like a pro wrestler than a football player as he stood in front of one of the few fans air conditioning the building.
The left tackle didn’t always have the long locks, though. He’s been growing it since the summer, and the redshirt senior doesn’t plan on cutting it until Ohio wins a Mid-American Conference Championship.
“I needed something to change it up a little bit,” Pleasants said. “But as soon as we win a championship, we’re going into the locker room and shaving my head.”
Pleasants is confident Ohio can make that happen, but he knows the offensive line has a lot to improve for that to be possible.
The line struggled to protect quarterback Nathan Rourke last week against Pitt and allowed six sacks from the Panthers’ aggressive pass rush. Ohio’s offensive output in the 20-10 loss was its lowest since 2016, and Rourke’s dual-threat abilities were completely shut down — he was credited with nine rushing attempts for a career-low -43 yards.
Nothing seemed to go right for the offensive line, which returned just two starters from last season in Pleasants and left guard Brett Kitrell. The inexperience didn’t show Week 1 against Rhode Island when Ohio scored on seven of its first eight drives. Pitt, however, was a much different test.
“The game had a weird feel to it,” Pleasants said. “The energy wasn’t there, and things just weren’t going our way. After the first couple drives, we were just like ‘Oh, crap.’”
Maybe that was because Ohio was playing at Heinz Field in front of 42,168 fans in Pitt’s home opener, or maybe the Bobcats were feeling a little too good after making things look easy against an FCS school in the first week of the season.
Both Pleasants and offensive coordinator Tim Albin believe the Bobcats were prepared for Pitt. The Panthers defensive line was simply too stout, and Albin doesn’t think Ohio could’ve done much more to prepare for the strength from the Panthers.
“It’s tough to simulate the speed and power that you’ve seen when you’re playing a Power 5 school,” Albin said. “It’s a big payday, and it’s more powerful than what I can show in practice. We had guys in position, and we just got ran through.”
Ohio likely won’t have to defend against a front seven as strong as Pitt’s the rest of the season. Albin expects Marshall, the Bobcats’ next opponent, to play a bit faster, but it won’t have the same power.
It should provide a solid test for whether last week’s subpar performance was a fluke or a sign that showed the biggest weakness in Ohio’s typically effective offense.
“We don’t have to try to win it on the first play,” Albin said. “We’re just going to have to do our thing for four quarters, and take care of the football. My guys are strong enough. They’re 200-pound kids, and they can do it.”
If the Bobcats show that they learned from their underwhelming performance against Pitt, Rourke should have little issue reviving his dominance as a mobile quarterback. The running back competition, which is still ongoing three weeks into the season, might be a little easier to decipher, too.
For Pleasants, though, an improved offensive line means a better chance of enjoying a haircut in December.
“We can win a championship,” Pleasants said. “We got the clippers ready.”