Frank Solich has done about anything you can imagine in the world of college football over a lifetime spent playing and coaching the sport.
But Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff against the University of Pittsburgh — at Heinz Field — offers him a homecoming. Never before in his 15 years with Ohio has Solich had his team play a game closer to his childhood home in western Pennsylvania.
Solich, if you look up an official biography, is from Johnstown, Pa. A classic rust-belt type of town about an hour east of Pittsburgh. Solich doesn’t disagree he’s ‘from’ Johnstwon, but quickly points out he spent the majority of his early life in a small town called either Smokeless or Robindale.
Yes, the town had two names.
“It actually had two names. Why? I don’t know,” Solich said.
Smokeless, or Robindale if you prefer, would fit right into the myriads of towns, villages and townships that surround his current home town — Athens, Ohio. It was, simply, a mining town. For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t much different from any of the ‘Cities of Black Diamonds’ that dot Southeastern Ohio.
And ‘was’ is the right way to refer to Smokeless. The town was essentially erased by a flood in 1977. A new town, Robindale Heights, was constructed as a replacement.
By that time, Solich had long since moved with his family to Cleveland, discovered football, earned that scholarship to Nebraska and started his long, prosperous career in coaching.
So, now, all these years later and with even the indomitable Solich beginning to see the end of that coaching career on the horizon, does this game have any particular importance? Others might see their career coming full circle, or wax poetic about the chance to notch a big win close to where their entire life began.
And yes, Solich will have a few extra fans in attendance. There will be some extended family members, and some former teammates that have promised to cross the country to be in the Steel City for the Bobcats vs. Panthers.
But for the old football coach, the game is still the most important thing — not whatever emotions the circumstances of that particular game may invoke.
“It really doesn’t. Those kinds of things don’t play into games for me,” Solich said. “It’s more about just getting prepared to play each game and trying to win each game. Background and those kind of things don’t have a great deal of significance to me.
“I’m just excited for our team to have the opportunity to play the University of Pittsburgh and the proud program there.”
I take Solich at his word on that point. He’s never been overly sentimental. Still, I have a hunch he’ll have a little extra in the tank for this one.
Saturday’s game will be the closest game to his childhood home that Solich has been a part of. But not by much. About 90 minutes east of where Smokeless once stood is Happy Valley, where Solich and the Bobcats beat Penn State 24-14 back in 2012.
Ohio (1-0) at Pitt (0-1)
Ohio Offense vs. Pitt Defense
The Bobcats got a great first game from a reworked offense in the opener. OU ran for 278 yards, Nathan Rourke completed 73 percent of his throws, and all the young skill position players — from O’Shaan Allison and De’Montre Tuggle, to Shane Hooks and Jerome Buckner — delivered big plays.
Ohio’s success rate was a glittering 0.577 overall, and the first team offense scored all on seven of its ‘real’ possessions. The Bobcats had one offensive penalty.
And the offensive line, the unit that lost three all-conference performers? With three seniors in place, OC Tim Albin said the group is off to a better start than a year ago.
“Unbelievable job,” Albin said. “We were further along in week 1 than last year, and I never thought I’d say that. We’re coming. I’m excited about where they’re at after the first week.”
Now comes the tough part. Ohio will face a Pitt defense that gave up 30 points in the opener, but Virginia’s three touchdown drives were all less than 30 yards.
It’s a rock-solid Panther unit that incorporates one of the defensive minds in college football in head coach Pat Narduzzi.
And Ohio will still have the usual assortment of first-time starters and contributors making their first road game appearance against a team desperate to avoid an 0-2 start.
All of that adds up to a challenge for Ohio, which will have to lean on that OL and Rourke to carry the day when the Panthers dial up their myriad of pressures. If the ‘Cats get stuck in third-and-long, Narduzzi has as big a playbook as anybody in terms of calls to stick an offense.
“I know they do a great job of stopping the run. And on third down they’re probably one of the most complex teams that we’ve seen as far as pressures. They get into an odd front, get into that 3-4 stuff and do a good job on where it’s coming from,” Albin explained.
“Nathan is going to have to be on point. We’re going to have to move the pocket. We’re going to have to be multiple with our protections, get it out quick and max it up.
“There’s guys coming from all over the place.”
Who to watch: Ohio QB Nathan Rourke
Rourke heads into the weekend with 80 career touchdowns accounted for. With three more he’ll break the program record held by former OU QB Tyler Tettleton (82, 2013).
Ohio will need a big game from Rourke to pull off the upset. He’ll be challenged in a plethora of ways — from tight man-to-man coverage on the outside, to lots of different blitz looks, to disguised coverages.
If Ohio wins this game, Rourke — and his ability to hold it all together — will be a big reason why.
Pitt offense vs Ohio defense
Ron Collins, now in game two as the Ohio defensive coordinator, knows what the numbers say.
They say that Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple knows how to shred the Bobcats. Whipple, as the UMass head coach in 2017 and ’18, guided the Minutemen to a combined 92 points in a pair of losses to the Bobcats.
“We know how many points we’ve given up, we realize that. It’s about going out and playing good technique football, good sound football, and everybody being on the same page,” Collins said.
“But (Whipple is) a headache. He’s dynamic. He does some different things that are unorthodox,” he added. “We have to get ready for a lot of different stuff and he’s good at what he does.”
The good news for Ohio is this matchup, however, is two-fold. First, the Bobcats have a strong belief they’ve solved some of the communication issues that led to the large amount of busted coverages and big plays allowed early in 2018.
And second, Pitt is still unsure who and what it is offensively in 2019. The Panthers were a power run team in 2018, and had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. But with the return of dual-threat starting quarterback Kenny Picket and the addition of Whipple, Pitt came out and threw the ball more than 40 times in the opener.
So who are the Panthers? Collins figures it could be a get-back-to-basics week for Pitt. OU expects a challenge between the tackles on the line of scrimmage with a Pitt front that has size, but little experience with four new starters.
“They’re going to be the same as us. They’re going to get back and establish the run,” Collins said. “Our deal is we have to stop that to keep them from getting their pass game going.”
Ohio had a good first week, but again it was against FCS team at home. It could be a different matter against the defending ACC Coastal Division champion on the road.
OU was good on third down — 4 of 14 conversions allowed — and forced two field goal kicks on red zone possessions. Other than a trio of penalties that gave up first downs, and two lost opportunities on 50/50 deep balls, Collins had few complaints.
Collins hopes the game turns out nothing like OU’s last two games against UMass, or its last two games against P5 teams (Purdue and Virginia). Big and explosive plays doomed OU to playing catchup against the Boilermakers and Cavaliers.
"We cannot give up explosive plays. That’s going to be the big deal. That comes back to stopping the run and being able to stay on top of all their receivers routes,” Collins said. “Don’t let those guys behind us. That’s been, over the last few years, the nemesis for us as a defense.”
Who to watch: Ohio S Javon Hagan
Hagan had a solid 2019 debut, with five tackles, but will need to provide some ‘havoc’ plays against Pitt.
Whipple loves to use the tight end, and TEs were a huge factor in each of the last two games for Ohio against UMass. In Ohio’s scheme, Hagan will often find himself responsible for the biggest pass catchers on the field.
To spring the upset, Ohio likely needs to win the turnover battle and few on the Ohio defense are better at providing potential takeaways than Hagan.
— Ohio will have nearly everyone available. WR Tyler Tupa, the leading receiver in week one for the Bobcats, will likely not play because of a shoulder injury however.
— There was one depth chart switch this week for Ohio. Redshirt sophomore Michael Ballentine has supplanted fellow third-year sophomore De’Vante Mitchell as the backup free safety on the defense.
— P Michael Farkas was added to the Ray Guy Award watch list this week. He deserved the nod. However, it was odd he was added to the watch list after not attempting a single punt in the season opener.
— Albin declined to name a starter at RB for week 2 on Wednesday. However, he indicated that each of the top three — O’Shaan Allison, Julian Ross and De’Montre Tuggle — will each get an opportunity in the first half.
— Ohio, so far, is staying true to its word about targeting TEs and RBs more in 2019. That group was targeted four times in the opener — out of 23 passing attempts — and that single-game ratio was higher than any single game in 2018.