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Kai Caesar (50) fights through two defenders during game against Kent St. on Oct. 1, 2022. The Bobcats lost to the Golden Flashes 31-24 in overtime.

Football: Key Takeaways from the 2023 Mid-American Conference football kickoff

DETROIT, MI - Ohio officially began the 2023 season on Thursday with the Mid-American Conference football kick-off. 

After losing in the MAC championship game but rebounding with a bowl game victory, Ohio has an impressive act to follow this season. 

Here are a few things The Post learned after talking with head coach Tim Albin, quarterback Kurtis Rourke and defensive standout Bryce Houston. 

Team is looking to build off last season 

Ohio was able to end its season on a win last year with an overtime victory in the Barstool Arizona Bowl against Wyoming. 

“Ending the season with a victory in overtime – a bowl win – it's huge in momentum coming into the offseason,“ Albin said. “With that comes great expectations and we are not going to shy away from them.”

The team will make it a focus to build off that momentum and get off to a hot start in order to maintain success. Last year, the team did not get the start it was hoping for in non-conference play, especially on the defensive side of the ball. 

“Getting off to a good start is huge. We have a tough schedule, but I think those are all teams that if we come with our best effort and come ready to go then we have a chance to compete with all of them,” Rourke said. “It’s a challenge but it’s a fun challenge.”

Rourke remains “ahead of schedule” after ACL tear

A big question heading into this season is the health of reigning MAC player of the year Kurtis Rourke. Ohio’s star quarterback tore his ACL last November and has slowly been rehabilitating the injury since.

“My focus this summer has been getting healthy,” Rourke said. “Working with the receivers and working with the tight ends and basically the whole offense to keep building that chemistry and getting more efficient as an offense.”

Ohio will need Rourke to be at his best in order to compete in a tough non-conference schedule to start the season with games against Iowa State and San Diego State. 

Albin believes his quarterback is ready for the year to start but expects it to take some time for Rourke to get back to his full potential. 

“I’m certain that there will be some rust out there when he's out there in live action, we’re going to have to do a good job with him in fall camp,” Albin said. “He will be the same person, he’s just going to have to work on some things. Coming off an injury like that, it’s just part of it.”

Scheduling not a concern 

Ohio has quite a few oddities to its schedule this season including two bye weeks and five weekend home games compared to its usual heavy dosage of midweek games during conference play. Maybe the most important part of Ohio’s schedule, however, is that the team will play during week 0, a week before any MAC team makes its season debut. 

On Aug. 26, Ohio will make the trip to San Diego State University to kick off its season against the Aztecs. 

“It’s gonna give you some breathing room in the season, everyone in the conference is going to have a challenging non-conference schedule,” Albin said. “We’re going to have a couple breaks in there that we usually wouldn’t have so that if we get some bumps and bruises we are gonna have some time to get guys back.”

A week 0 game means that the team gets one less week to prepare for the season and will also enter week one with the disadvantage of having already played a game, causing its players to be more fatigued. In return for the week 0 game, Ohio will enjoy two bye weeks compared to the usual one during the season. 

“The biggest challenge with Week 0 is going to be keeping the team fresh through the extra time off,” Albin said. “We won’t have a stretch where we play three games in 15 days.”

The team is not worried about high expectations 

After last year’s successes, this year's team enters with high expectations. 

During MAC Media Day, the coaches preseason poll was released and to no one's surprise, Ohio is favored to repeat as the East division champions. This is a major move up from last year's preseason ranking of 5th in the East. 

“When you have success and the number of returners we have, you’re going to have high expectations,” Albin said. “I think that the leaders of this team like Bryce (Houston) and Kurtis (Rourke), they have taken (the momentum) as fuel in the offseason and have worked extremely hard.”

Expectations can mess with a team's mindset going into the season but Albin has made sure that his team never loses track of the main goal of finishing the job and winning the MAC championship game. 

“This is my favorite time of the year with camp starting next week, putting a new team together, it's a new journey,” Albin said. “With any journey, who you’re traveling with is more important than the destination and who we’re traveling with, with this year's team, it’s really exciting.”

All three units need to click early in order to achieve success 

Ohio got off to a slow start last year despite finishing with the best conference record in the East division. 

A lackluster start can be accredited to the team's inability to click in all three facets of the game, that being offense, defense and special teams. 

“One goal without question, we need all three phases clicking together early,” Albin said. “We got there midseason last year, the offense started hot and the defense came along and when we brought it all together we went on a great run.”

The defense will especially be looking to get off to a hot start after starting flat last year and allowing over 30 points in the first six games of the year last season. 

“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do as a defense is to start fast, that is certainly something that we struggled with last season,” Houston said. “Specifically the first four games we were a little slower and then we started to pick it up at Kent State. We have to understand that in order to be successful on the defensive side of the ball, we have to start fast, that starts on the first play of the game.”


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