It’s been 52 years since Ohio’s won a Mid-American Conference championship. And while this year’s road to the title is shorter than ever, that doesn’t mean it’s any less challenging. The Bobcats begin their six-game conference-only schedule on Wednesday, Nov.4 against the defending MAC-West champion, Central Michigan, and it’ll take a great performance to escape Mt.Pleasant with a win.
Ohio head coach Frank Solich plans on having the Bobcats ready as he enters his 16th season at the helm. The MAC’s record holder for most wins as a coach has playcalled in big games before, but this season he’ll have to send in plays to a new quarterback — or quarterbacks. With only six games on the schedule, the Bobcats will have to be nearly perfect to make it to Detroit for a shot at the conference title.
The Bobcats believe that it’s their year, and they have the talent to back it up. But will everything come together? Stick around for the spectacle that the 2020 season is sure to bring, but first here’s your 2020 Ohio Bobcats football season preview.
Before diving into what the Bobcats are bringing into the new decade, let’s go over last season really quickly. Ohio, despite being favored to win the MAC, finished with an underwhelming 7-6 record but ended the season with a 30-21 victory over Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Quarterback Nathan Rourke led an offense that scored 34.3 points per game and averaged 442.2 yards per game. Rourke rewrote most of Ohio’s record book during his time as a Bobcat and whoever takes his role will have big shoes to fill. Luckily for Solich, most of Rourke’s weapons from a year ago are returning.
The defense was sometimes hot and sometimes cold in 2019. To start the season it was frozen. The Bobcats defense struggled with tackling and couldn’t cause turnovers. This was a main reason why early on Ohio was deadlocked into shootouts with Marshall, Northern Illinois and Kent State respectively. But as the season wore on first-year defensive coordinator Ron Collins started to see his guys gel and the results were solid. If Ohio plans on stopping the best in the MAC this season, its defense will have to be connected from the start.
The number one question Ohio’s offense must answer is who will be it’s quarterback? There’s two legitimate answers in redshirt freshman Kurtis Rourke, a pure pocket passer with a cannon for an arm and a legend for an older brother, or Armani Rogers— the graduate transfer from UNLV that can make plays in the pocket or on the run.
Throughout camp, Rourke and Rogers have battled for the starting spot and with the game just days away, Solich still doesn’t have an answer. There’s use for both Rourke’s arm and Rogers’ mobility. In Solich’s mind there’s nothing wrong with potentially using both.
“Both of them have really strong pluses on their side,” Solich said. “Both can be used not only throughout the course of the season but really throughout the course of the game.”
Expect Rourke and Rogers to play in Wednesday’s game against the Chippewas. One may play more than the other but the quarterback competition seems to be far from over.
Ohio has an embarrassment of riches at running back. Last year, the trio of O’Shaan Allison, De’Montre Tuggle and Julian Ross rushed for 1,797 yards and 18 touchdowns combined. All three of those guys are returning this season, but that’s not even the worst news for opposing defenses.
Redshirt senior Ja’Vahri Portis has impressed coaches all camp and is looking for a bigger role in the offense. Last season, Portis rushed for 168 yards and four touchdowns, but with Allison expected to take a few games to reach 100 percent after dealing with an ankle sprain for most of camp, Portis’ role could be even bigger than most imagine. Either way, whoever’s carrying the ball has the expectation to deliver.
“I have seven guys in my room and to be honest with you, there’s a standard there,” offensive coordinator Tim Albin said. “It’s their time to go and they’re going to need to get in there and execute.”
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
One of the most electrifying positions groups that Ohio has is the wide receivers. Cam Odom, Isiah Cox and Shane “Hollywood” Hooks are three guys that’ll turn heads, and defensive backs, sideways.
To complement the wideouts are tight ends, and twin brothers, Ryan and Adam Luehrman. Ryan was second on the team in catches (28) and tied for first with Hooks in receiving touchdowns (5). Adam played in all 13 games last season and started in six of them, his versatility as a blocker and a pass catcher adds another layer to the Bobcats offense.
Experience will play a big role in Ohio’s pass catchers having a big season, expect a spurt out of some of the young guys. Guys like Ty Walton and Jerome Buckner add even more firepower to an already loaded Ohio offense.
Like the quarterback position, the offensive line poses some questions for the Bobcats. Ohio lost tackles Austen Pleasants, Marques Grimes and Steven Hayes to graduation and is going to need some guys to step up and round out the line headed by senior center Brett Kitrell.
Surrounding Kitrell are experienced vets like Nick Sink, Hagen Meservy and Samson Jackson. All three are upperclassmen and ready to step into bigger roles, but the longer it takes for the offensive line to mesh together, the longer it’ll take for Ohio’s offense to operate at full power.
“There’s numerous guys that we’re preparing, and they need to come,” Solich said. “There’s no question about it, we’re going to be young in the offensive line. Not sure that’ll be a situation where we will be as good as we’re going to be in the middle of the season.”
Starting strongside linebacker Dylan Conner decided to opt out of the 2020 season and that could cause some issues for the linebackers. Solich isn’t worried about it, though. In fact the linebackers were one of his favorite units to watch throughout camp.
“In some ways they’re young, but they seem to play at a level that would indicate that they’re smart guys,” Solich said.
Leading the young group is redshirt senior Jared Dorsa. Dorsa was second on the team in tackles and will be a force in the middle. On the weakside, is Keye Thompson. Thompson, a redshirt sophomore, had a breakout season last year. He’s stated throughout camp that he hesitates much less and will look to cause even more chaos for opposing offenses.
Replacing Conner is Pickerington natives Jeremiah Wood and Ben Johnson. Wood has had plenty of eyes on him throughout camp and so far he’s delivered and Johnson looks to grow in his second season. Both guys will have an opportunity to play and Collins has been impressed with what he’s seen.
“Both those guys bring great speed,” Collins said. “I don’t think we lose a beat on the speed aspect of it. Both are competing and doing a great job of things.”
Solich used the word “baptized” to describe the struggles the secondary had last season. Ohio only recorded five interceptions and nobody in the secondary had more than one. It doesn’t help that three-time captain Javon Hagan has moved on to the NFL either. If there’s any unit with the most to prove from last year, it’s the defensive backs.
Justin Birchette, John Gregory, Jamal Hudson and Motley twins, Iylaas and Xavior will look to bounce back from last year. Defensive back coach De’Angelo Smith is making sure of it.
“We have a takeaway circuit where we have strips, interceptions, we have scoop and score,” Smith said. “We have a different variety of how to get takeaways.”
In terms of the safeties, Jarren Hampton returns with newcomer Alvin Floyd. Throughout camp, Floyd has gain the reputation of being a sparkplug. His energy is infectious and he hopes that he can motivate the secondary to play at a high level.
“It’s a show coming,” Floyd said with a mischievous grin. “That’s all I can say.”
Rounding out the defense are the big boys up front. The defensive line returns studs Austin Conrad, Will Evans and Kai Caesar from a year before and all three off those guys have the potential to see their names on an All-MAC team by the end of the season.
What makes this unit special is the experience. Opposing offensive lines only have a short time to figure out how to contain the Bobcats pressure. The defensive line has the potential of being the best unit on Ohio’s defense, and when a team has a dominant line, everybody else will be able to shine.
You can’t forget about special teams, especially not this year.
Ohio’s always been able to count on kicker Louie Zervos, punter Micahel Farkas and long snapper Devin King to lead the special teams and execute, but not anymore. With all three graduated, Ohio’s special teams will be the team’s most inexperienced unit.
Redshirt freshman Tristian Vandenberg and true freshmen Jack Wilson and Sam Volpe could fulfill the roles of kicker, punter and long snapper, respectively. There’s still plenty of questions about the unit and Solich was pretty blunt about its inexperience.
“They’ve shown well leading up to the first game,” Solich said. “But showing well in camp and showing well in a game is really different for a young player.”
Ohio has its share of tough opponents this season, but three in particular stand out.
To start the season, Ohio faces Central Michigan, the MAC-West champion. The Chippewas have a dangerous back in Kobe Lewis, multiple threats at wideout and a coach, Jim McElwain, that’ll have CMU ready for battle on Wednesday night. A win over the Chippewas could set the tone for the rest of the season, while a loss could put early pressure on the Bobcats.
Two weeks later, Ohio goes on another difficult road trip to archrival Miami. The RedHawks defeated the Bobcats in Athens last season and rode the momentum to a MAC Championship. Defeating the reigning champs in Oxford could be Ohio’s toughest test.
Buffalo was the media’s pick to win the MAC this season and for good reason. The Bulls have one of the best running backs in football in Jaret Patterson and the conference’s best defense. Ohio will have plenty of time to prepare for its week five opponent, but that also means the Bulls have time to plan their revenge from last year’s 21-20 overtime loss to the Bobcats.
Best case scenario
Obviously the best case scenario for Ohio is to go 7-0 and win the MAC Championship. I feel that only the latter is possible. If Ohio is lucky at the end of Week 3 it’ll be 2-1. Miami will be coming off one of its toughest games of the season (Buffalo) when it plays Ohio. If the Bobcats win, they can effectively wipe Miami out of the conference title picture.
I give Central Michigan the advantage in Wednesday’s season opener, but I do believe the Bobcats can win. It depends on how quickly the quarterback situation is solved though. If the Bobcats flip-flop throughout the game it could ruin their flow, if they find a reasonable way to try out Rogers and Rourke, though, the Bobcats may pull off the upset.
Even if Ohio loses to Central Michigan, it can still bounce back and go 5-0 against MAC-East opponents. The Bobcats went 4-1 against such opponents last year, so it’s not too much of a stretch. If an early season hiccup makes way for a five-game winning streak, the Bobcats could be kissing their 52-year-long drought goodbye.
Worst case scenario
Nobody wants to be negative, but Ohio does have a lot of questions to answer amongst its team and doesn’t have a lot of time to address them. Whoever starts at quarterback is going to be tasked with beating both of the division champions on the road in the span of two weeks. Buffalo will be the most complete team Ohio faces this season, and don’t forget the scare Kent State gave the Bobcats last season.
If Ohio starts the season off fast, it could be playing catch up in a sprint rather than the usual marathon the season entails. At worst, Ohio still beats Akron and Bowling Green but losses all its toss up games and finishes the season 2-4.
It’s not my job to make predictions, but it’s a perk that I can’t pass up. Buffalo is the team to beat in the MAC and I believe its the Bulls year, but Ohio will give every team in the MAC a run. Ohio’s issues at quarterback have me weary for the early stretch of the season, but the talent amongst the offense will still produce a lot of points.
To conclude, my prediction is that Ohio will start the season off slow but manage to find season defining wins against Miami and Kent State. A mix of best and worst case scenario squarely puts the Bobcats at 4-2, finishing second in the MAC East.