BOISE, Idaho — Frank Solich paused and began to tear up as he answered the last question in his postgame press conference at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
The 75-year-old coach has never showed such strong emotion throughout the course of Ohio’s 6-6 season that fell short of winning a Mid-American Conference Championship. The Bobcats failed to close out tight games all season, and defensive breakdowns were mostly to blame.
But the defense finally pulled through Friday against Nevada at Albertsons Stadium. Two late game stops — including a recovered fumble when the Wolf Pack were inside the Bobcats’ 10-yard line — helped surge Ohio to a 30-21 win for its third consecutive bowl victory.
“It was not easy for anybody in the program to accept what happened to us in terms of not getting it done at the level that we believed we were going to get it done at,” said Solich, who signed a two-year contract extension to remain coach of the Bobcats before the trip to Boise. “This team has a special place in my heart for…”
And then he stopped. His lips quivered as he brought himself together to finish the sentence.
“… for how they responded. Are you kidding me?”
Solich was emotional because Ohio never quit on its coach, whose job future beyond his 15th season with the Bobcats appeared to be at stake when it became evident that Ohio wouldn’t win a MAC Championship for the first time since 1968.
The Bobcats were eliminated from a trip to Detroit after their loss to Western Michigan on Nov. 12. But they didn’t quit. Instead, they dominated their last two games to ensure bowl eligibility for the 11th consecutive season.
On Friday, Ohio was in the same situation it faced in gut-wrenching losses to Northern Illinois, Miami and Western Michigan — all losses that ultimately cost the Bobcats a shot at the conference championship.
Two fumbles from Nathan Rourke opened the door for Nevada to storm back from a 30-9 deficit. The Wolf Pack scored two touchdowns and 12 unanswered points to bring the score to 30-21 with eight minutes left.
That was plenty of time for the Bobcats to choke away their lead in the same way they did in crucial games.
Instead, the defense made a stop that could be considered the play of the season.
On first-and-goal from Ohio’s 6-yard line, Nevada running back Devonte Lee took a handoff and was met quickly from the defensive line. Austin Conrad punched the ball loose. Marcus Coleman pounced on it, and players from the sideline sprinted to the field in excitement.
The job wasn’t finished yet. Nevada got the ball back with two minutes left and hauled back inside Ohio’s 10-yard line.
The Bobcats responded with heavy pressure on Carson Strong. Four incompletions later, and Ohio was in victory formation.
“We have fighters on our team,” safety Jarren Hampton said. “We're not going to lay down for nobody. That's what we did. We showed that today. It got rough, but we persevered.”
The stops also meant that Rourke, who threw 144 yards and ran for 87 yards in his last game with Ohio, will end his illustrious college career with a win and the bowl’s MVP trophy.
His 109 career touchdowns are a program record and will likely stand as such for years to come. He’ll always be one of the best recruits Solich has brought to the program.
Their time together didn’t include a MAC Championship, but it carried just about everything else.
“I take a lot of pride in being a good teammate, being a good leader, being coachable by the coaches,” Rourke said. “I've been so fortunate to be able to come here and to just be one of the guys, learn from these coaches, have a lot of fun, a lot of success doing it. I couldn't ask for more from this program.”
That’s a nod to Solich, who has always seemed to have the respect of his team no matter Ohio’s final record.
Players gave him a french fry bath instead of a Gatorade shower when the Bobcats sealed their win. That trust and relationship is one reason why he’ll be back to coach for another two years.
The MAC Championship drought will continue to be a sorrowful storyline as the program advances without Rourke. With him now a football alum, the Bobcats might have a tougher time meeting that goal next season and beyond.
With Solich at the helm, however, the motivation from players to win has never appeared to waver.
It certainly didn’t in the Potato Bowl.