Saturday is the day Ohio has been preparing for all season. If there’s any hope for a Mid-American Conference Championship game, it lies in if Ohio can defeat Buffalo.
It’ll be Ohio’s toughest game this season. The Bulls are the best team in the MAC. Period. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. The Bulls haven’t lost or canceled a game this season and pummeled their closest contender Kent State by 29 points to become king of the hill.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats have been riding high. A 52-10 obliteration of Bowling Green has raised morale around the team. It was the fruit of an unexpected 18-day break following the cancelation of the Battle of the Bricks against Miami.
Those 18 days were almost a second fall camp for Ohio. Coach Frank Solich was able to step back and plug the leaks in the ship. Tristan Vandenberg has shortened his stride and as such improved his kick accuracy. The defense hammered away at forcing three-and-outs. Kurtis Rourke and Armani Rogers looked fully adjusted to the two-quarterback season.
“They set out to play great football every week and you know you can't just try to piece together a driving force to play better football,” Solich said. “There's a lot of things that go into playing great, great football and you better get all those bases covered.”
A 52-10 victory sure covers all the bases. Ohio looked the best it had all season last Saturday. Now, it’s speeding toward the game that determines its season.
But it doesn’t feel like it. Practice goes on, and no one is treating Buffalo with any more seriousness than Bowling Green. At practice, players have reiterated the same words every day this week:
“It’s just another game.”
No one wants to get caught up in the what-ifs and worries of Buffalo. Not to say Ohio’s being lackadaisical, far from it. Players are more focused than ever, but they refuse to get caught up in the implications.
Solich isn’t cocky. He knows to take a good team seriously even when he has a 6-1 record at home against that team. Even then, playing at Peden won’t foster much of an advantage. It’s difficult to reap the benefits of being the home team when the only people attending the game are sitting in the press box.
“Now obviously it's a challenge to them, and you know our guys have always accepted challenges well,” Solich said in a press conference Monday. “You don't play a great running back, a great quarterback, a great receiver without there being a challenge there for guys that are playing on the other side of the ball.”
Ohio’s biggest concern is 5-feet-9-inches, 195 pounds and goes by the name Jaret Patterson. The running back has been the scourge of the MAC this season. Against Kent State, Patterson rushed for 409 yards and eight touchdowns. By himself. He managed to surpass De’Montre Tuggle’s combined 2020 stats in an afternoon.
That’s not even mentioning quarterback Kyle Vantrease and wide receiver Antonio Nunn. Buffalo’s offense is amazingly well-rounded. It leads the conference in points scored and in passing yards.
“(Patterson) is a good running back and they’ve got good offense,” safety Alvin Floyd said. “Everybody’s got to do their job and be aggressive, because both their running backs and receivers are good. So you’ve got to respect it.”
Ohio’s defense will be the defining aspect of the game Saturday. Whatever lit the fire Ohio’s defense had burning against Bowling Green is needed more than ever. The strongest offense in the conference is coming to town and Ohio needs a wall on the field to stop it.
Alvin Floyd thinks the best way to bring the defense together is through communication. He’s not alone. Ohio players carry with themselves what’s called a “next-man-up mentality.” Every player knows his job and what he has to do for a win.
“We come together as a team communication wise,” Floyd said. “On everybody’s position and what everybody's job is to do. And our job is to stop the run so that's what we got to do. Be aggressive up front.”
The pressure is on, but Ohio isn’t feeling it. Saturday may be the biggest game of the season, but if Ohio plays well, the path to Detroit lays open.
And why should the Bobcats stress themselves out? It’s just another game.