Ringing in 2020

The Ohio Bobcats, including Adam Luehrman (44), Austen Pleasants (60) and Isiah Cox (6) celebrating a touchdown in the season opener, wrap up the 2019 season in the 23rd annual Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. Kick off is set for 3:30 p.m. ET.

BOISE, Idaho — In search of some redemption and a happy ending, the Bobcats return this week to the site of a major breakthrough.

Ohio (6-6) will finish off a disappointing 2019 season in the 23rd annual Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against Nevada (7-5). Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. (ET).

The bowl itself was where the Bobcats notched the first postseason win in program history. It was here, in 2011 on the same blue turf still used by Boise State University at Albertsons Stadium, where 15th-year head coach Frank Solich saw OU pick up a 24-23 win over Utah State.

It was the first bowl-win ever for Ohio, and the game is still remembered as one of the best days in Solich’s long tenure with the Bobcats.

“I still remember it clearly,” said Tim Albin, Solich’s Offensive Coordinator for each and every game of the last 15 years. “It was a great day.”

But Ohio returns to the bowl for the first time in eight years looking not for a breakthrough, but for a bounce back. The Bobcats, heavy preseason favorites to win the Mid-American Conference East Division, needed a two-game win streak at the end of the regular season just to become bowl eligible.

Then OU sweated out a couple of weeks to see if it would get a bowl game of any kind.

The Bobcats got one, and they aim to make it worth their while. There’s no doubt about Ohio’s desire to be playing one more time.

“We feel like we could’ve had a way better season. We all know that,” said junior wide receiver Cam Odom. “And that’s from the coaching staff all the way down to the players.

“We just have the chip on our shoulder that we have to show that we should be the best team in the MAC,” he added. “And we’re going to prove it.”

All season, Ohio proved it had an explosive offense. The Bobcats rank 32nd nationally in total offense (443.2 yards per game) and 20th in scoring offense (34.7 ppg). It’s the kind of balanced attack that can, and has, caused problems for most teams on the schedule this season.

It’ll be a huge test for Nevada, which had its issues on that side during the regular season. The Wolf Pack gave up 32.1 points per game — 102nd nationally — and will enter the bowl game in a state of flux on that side of the ball.

Nevada dumped three defensive coaches after the regular-season finale, and will be missing four key defensive players in the bowl. Starting safety Austin Arnold, starting cornerback Daniel Brown and starting defensive tackle Hausia Sekona will all be suspended for the game after a brawl in the Wolf Pack’s last game against UNLV. Starting linebacker Gabe Sewell will miss the first half because of a different suspension (targeting).

Nevada could offer up a surprise look defensively and maybe that can carry the day, but the Wolf Pack appears to be ill-equipped to shut down Ohio and standout senior quarterback Nathan Rourke.

“We have to make sure we take the things perceived as negatives at this bowl — the later date or whatever that might be — put that aside and just focus on Nevada and playing our best football,” Rourke said.

Rourke, as he has all season, will be in line for more OU records as well. He’s already shattered the Ohio record for touchdowns accounted for over a career (111), and has amassed 9,860 career yards of total offense. He’s within reach of the Ohio record for total offense, set by Tyler Tettleton (10,039).

And if Rourke can get two rushing touchdowns, he’ll be just the fourth college football player ever to score 50 passing, and 50 rushing, touchdowns over a career.

Rourke will be essential to Ohio’s hopes as injury and a transfer leave the Bobcats with no other ready options at the position. His experience will also be vital should the Wolf Pack go off the wall with their defensive game plan.

And if the Bobcats need even more motivation, then there’s the fact OU has never won three straight bowl games. Yes, the Bobcats could make history again in Boise.

“I got a senior quarterback. He’s going to have to adjust,” Albin said. “It’s a good opportunity to get three in a row. It’s never been done here. Try to get Nate to go out a winner and all those things to play for. A winning season. The whole thing.”

The Wolf Pack will have motivation as well. An up-and-down year was the course of the season up until November. Nevada upset Purdue in the season opener, then was humiliated in a 77-6 loss at Oregon. The Wolf Pack squeezed out a few wins, but had ugly losses to Hawaii (54-3), Utah State (36-10) and Wyoming (31-3) along the way.

Nevada rolled to three straight wins in November, including the program’s first-ever road win over a ranked team in a 17-13 win at then No. 24 San Diego State. But then the Wolf Pack was upset 33-30 in the rivalry game to finish the year.

Nevada’s ‘Air Pistol’ offense has been more ground-based of late, but freshman quarterback Carson Strong (1,933 yards, 10 TDs, 63.4 percent) has made nine starts and claimed the position late in the year. Flankers Elijah Cooks (62-725 yards, 7 TDs) and Romeo Doubs (44-649, 4 TDs) pose a pair of problematic matchups on the outside. And RB Toa Taua (759 yards, 6 TDs) is the kind of runner — strong and powerful — that has given OU issues all season.

And defense has been the sticking point for Ohio most of the season. In each of the Bobcats’ six losses, the difference was a single possession in the fourth quarter. And in each game Ohio failed to get a key defensive stop. Ohio had four losses by a total of 11 points.

The Bobcats created just six turnovers in the first 10 games of the year, before raking in seven in the final two games — both blowout wins. If the defense plays in the bowl like it played in the final two games, the Bobcats will be in great shape.

“You’ve got to defend their best players and again, it goes back to all the things that we talk about,” Ohio defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “Can we create turnovers? Can we stop the run? Can we make plays when they need to be made?”

It’ll be the final game for several program mainstays for Ohio. From Rourke, to four-year starting safety Javon Hagan, to special team building blocks in kicker Louie Zervos and punter Michael Farkas, and several others, the Bobcats will be bidding farewell to several foundational players.

The desire to send those players off the right way, the need to put a positive ending on a tough season, and the want to set a little program history means this particular postseason exhibition game packs more meeting, said Solich.

For the veteran head coach, who recently agreed to a two-year extension to remain OU’s coach, it’ll be a special game.

“When you look at my career overall — I’ve been to the Rose Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and the list goes on — this bowl will be as meaningful to me as any bowl I’ve been in,” Solich said.

“That’s just the way I look at it and the way I see it. The way I approach it.”

Email at jarkley@athensmessenger.com; follow on Twitter @JasonAmessenger

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