You couldn’t blame Ohio University football fans for feeling like they’d seen the 2019 season before.
The same could be said for long-time head coach Frank Solich.
For a second straight season, the Bobcats entered the fall as preseason Mid-American Conference East Division favorites…and then failed to follow through during the regular season. Ohio (7-6) lost the one conference game it couldn’t afford to — a home bout against division winner Miami — and was left to ruminate over the program’s long drought without a conference championship.
It was the same story in 2018, and in 2017 for that matter, as well. The Bobcats have played as well as any team in the conference over the three-year span — if you judge such things via advanced analytics and predictive analysis tools — but have no division titles to show for it.
The Bobcats battled, and did some good things along the way, but had to muster up over the final four games after the 24-21 home loss to the hated RedHawks on Nov. 6.
“It was not easy for anybody in the program to accept what kind of happened to us in terms of not getting it done at the level that we believed we were going to get it done at,” Solich said following OU’s 30-21 win over Nevada in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Ohio opened the season with a ho-hum win over Rhode Island in Peden Stadium. It was the only time the Bobcats were above .500 the entire season until after the bowl victory.
The Bobcats ended up 0-3 throughout the remainder of the non-conference slate. It was a good set of games — Pitt, Marshall and Louisiana all finished with winning records and won their bowl games — but Ohio came out on the wrong side of each one.
Do-everything quarterback Nathan Rourke was ill, and the Bobcats never got on track offensively in a 20-10 loss at Pitt (8-5). The defense couldn’t get a fourth-quarter, or first-half for that matter, stop in a 33-31 loss at Marshall (8-5). Louisiana (11-3) — the best team OU played all season — dropped a 45-25 loss on Ohio in Peden, but that game was just a 6-point affair in the fourth quarter.
In MAC play, Ohio won at Buffalo (21-20, OT), and the Bulls finished with eight wins and was regarded by the rating systems as the first or second best team in the league.
OU fell to 2-4 the next week, however, with a 39-36 home loss to NIU. That set back was the start of a hard-luck month for Ohio. After winning against Kent State (45-38) and Ball State (34-21), the Bobcats then dropped three-point games against Miami and Western Michigan (37-34, OT).
Ohio’s three MAC losses came by a total of nine points. Two losses were via career-long field goals made by opposing kickers, and the third was in overtime.
The Bobcats didn’t fold, and finished the season strong. At 4-6 after the WMU loss, OU won its final three games by a combined score of 148-48.
The bowl win was the third straight for Ohio, a program record. The ‘Cats’ five bowl wins have all come under Solich.
Ohio rallied to post a fifth-straight winning season. Solich has helped the Bobcats to 11 winning seasons in his 15 years at the helm, including 10 of the last 11.
“It would have been very easy to kind of let things slide, not come out to practice with the same kind of enthusiasm and effort as if you’re going down the stretch battling for a MAC championship,” Solich said. “They didn’t let that happen.”
Ohio’s issues this season were mainly defensively, and special teams related. There were three lost fumbles on punt returns, all early in the season, that contributed to losses at Pitt and at Marshall. A blocked punt against NIU — the first for OU in three seasons — helped set the table for a nail-biter against the Huskies.
But it was defensively where Ohio labored the hardest. The Bobcats weren’t good against the run early in the season — Marshall ran for 305 yards and Louisiana followed a week later with 285 yards — and fourth-quarter stops were an issue all year until the final trio of games.
But there was one area that dominated OU’s struggles in 2019: Turnovers. The Bobcats, in 2018, forced 32 turnovers. Through the first 10 games of the 2019 season OU managed to create only six.
In Ohio’s six losses, the opponent only turned the ball over twice. OU regained the turnover magic late in the year, with nine in the last three games, but by then the season — in regards to the MAC — had been decided.
“We’re doing the same things we’ve always done. Same kind of drills, the same emphasis,” said senior safety Javon Hagan in the middle of the season. “We’re trying everything.
“It’s just got to turn for us at some point.”
Besides turnovers, Ohio did enough to deserve a better record than what it ended up with. The Bobcats were one of the best offenses in the MAC, and finished second in scoring at 34.3 points per game. The defense, despite the early-season issues, rounded into form in the second half and was sixth or better in nearly every major team statistic in the conference. Special teams, again over the last six games, were as solid or better than the rest of the MAC.
Taken from a 13-game view, the Bobcats were among the best in the MAC again. In the three major rating systems (Sagarin, Simple Rating System, SP+), Ohio finished as the second, first and third (respectively) rated team in the conference.
Miami, the MAC Champion, rated no higher than seventh in any of the three major rating lists.
It was another ‘good’ year for Ohio, but not great. It’s become a common refrain in recent years for the program, which remains desperate to win that first MAC championship since 1968.
Ohio will lose Rourke, statistically the most accomplished quarterback in program history, and Hagan, a four-year anchor in the secondary, but the window doesn’t appear to be shut just yet.
Graduation losses will be relative light, excluding the star power provided by Rourke and Hagan. Ohio is set to return eight offensive starters, and nine defensive starters, from the starting 22 that lined up in the Potato Bowl. Virtually every skill player who made a catch, or ran the ball, returns in 2020.
And Solich will be back as well. He inked a two-year extension early this month, and in all outward appearances looks to be as driven and as focused as ever on getting the Bobcats that elusive title.
Ohio won’t be the favorite in 2020 — that honor will fall to either Buffalo, Kent State or Miami in the East — but it will be contention. If OU can settle on a quarterback, and enjoy better turnover luck, it won’t take much imagination to see the Bobcats back atop the East Division next fall.
Solich desperately wanted the 2019 group to get that done. And the one aspect he can’t count on for sure yet, is the one last year’s team showed every day of the season.
“They came out every day with a lot of pride, ready to go,” Solich said. “If it was coming off a defeat, it was to bounce back. If it was coming off a win, it was just to get better and win more.
“This team has a special place in my heart for how they responded.”