Looking for a breakthrough

Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke (center) splits two tacklers during the Bobcats’ 41-20 win inside Peden Stadium on Aug. 31, 2019. Rourke needs three more touchdowns to become the program’s career leader in touchdowns accounted for.

Officially, Frank Solich was hired to coach the Ohio Bobcats football team in December of 2004.

But the Solich era of Ohio football didn’t really arrive until the following September.

It was then — Sept. 9, 2005 — in a jam-packed Peden Stadium when the Bobcats stunned visiting Pitt in an overtime classic on a national television platform. The Panthers were ranked just one week previously, but left Athens at 0-2 after Dion Byrum picked off a pair of Tyler Palko passes and returned both touchdowns.

It was a moment few of the more than 24,000 in attendance will forget. The longest era of Ohio Football excellence had just begun.

Solich is still coaching in Athens, and hasn’t forgotten win No. 1 on the Ohio sidelines. But he tried to squash any nostalgia for that game earlier this week. The Bobcats (1-0) travel to Pitt (0-1) in a rematch on Saturday morning, and that outcome will have no affect on what happens in Heinz Field on Saturday.

“To have an opening game like that was special in a lot of ways and certainly for the program,” Solich said Monday. “Again, let me emphasize, that’s in the past.

“This is a completely different team. Our team is, their team is, and it’s a whole different type of scenario and situation. That’s why I don’t want to dwell on that one bit.”

But that night in 2005 certainly has echoes that still ring through the Ohio program today.

For instance, Ohio’s assistant coach Brian Haines — now the Bobcats’ Special Teams Coordinator, Recruiting Coordinator and tight ends coach — was in the stands watching Byrum work his magic. At the time, Haines was a college football player — at Division III Marietta College — but made the trip over to watch Solich’s first home game with Ohio.

The Bobcats’ top two tight ends — twin brothers Adam and Ryan Luehrman — were in the Peden Stadium bleachers that night as well. Though just in second grade, the brothers were in the stands with parents Liz and Bill. Already Ohio fans, the Luehrmans became die-hards that night in the northwest corner seating.

“I remember my dad telling me that we probably weren’t going to win the game. ‘There’s no chance,’” Ryan Luehrman said. “Then Dion Byrum gets the pick-6. And it’s 10-10 in overtime. And (my dad) was finally really at it.”

Luehrman watched as students, and adults, streamed off the hill behind the south end zone after Byrum’s overtime pick-6 won it for the Bobcats. He wanted to be on the field too, but his parents nixed that idea.

“They thought better of it,” Luehrman said. “The next day I had no voice. I was screaming so much.

“That’s still the most exciting game I’ve been to in my whole life. It was amazing.”

It was a night when the Bobcats declared to the college football world that they still existed. Under Solich, they’ve never ebbed back into anonymity. Ohio remains the most stable program in the MAC, and is a constant contender for the conference title that has remained as elusive as quicksilver.

Winning seasons are the norm now, but the Bobcats want more. Ohio is just 5-17 in games against power conference teams under Solich. It’s time they earned another moment. Already the heavy preseason favorite in the MAC, OU can do more than win a game on Saturday.

“It’s an ACC game. They were in the ACC Championship last year,” said Ohio senior quarterback Nathan Rourke.

“If we can go in there and prove to the nation that we’re a team to take seriously, that would definitely be the way we’d want to leave Heinz Field on Saturday.”

Rourke gives Ohio a chance to spring the upset. The dual-threat signal-caller with a knack for getting out of trouble and juking defenders has put up touchdowns at a record pace for the Bobcats.

Just one game into his third season, Rourke as accounted for 80 total touchdowns. He’ll need two more to tie the program record — set by Tyler Tettleton in 2013 — and with three he’ll own it by himself.

“If we break it, so be it, but I’d like to do it with a win.”

The Bobcats are thinking upset, but the Panthers are thinking in desperate terms. Pitt opened with a thud last weekend at home in a 30-14 loss to Virginia. With upcoming dates against nationally ranked Penn State and UCF, Pitt has to right the ship and quickly.

An 0-4 start would be unfathomable for the defending ACC Coastal Division champions, who have improved under fifth-year head coach Pat Narduzzi. The Panthers have already lost two starters on the defensive line for the season due to injury, and have shown some growing pains with a new offense run by former UMass head coach Mark Whipple.

The Panthers can’t afford to overlook anyone at the moment, and Narduzzi certainly knows Solich’s reputation and the Bobcats status as a program after helping OU switch to a cover-4 scheme back in 2013.

“Ohio U., if you put the tape on, is good enough to whoop your tail,” Narduzzi said. “He’s got a system in, he’s got his kids there. They’re sound. They don’t do too much, but they’re very good at what they do.

“It’s a trap game. They’re all trap games. Every Saturday is a trap game.”

To spring the trap, the Bobcats will have to be sharper than in their last two games against power conference opponents. Ohio was overwhelmed by a poor second quarter in a 44-21 loss at Purdue in 2017.

The Bobcats were unsound defensively last year, when Virginia scored on big play after big play in a 45-31 loss at Vanderbilt in Nashville.

“We need to start the game the same way we did last week against Rhode Island,” Rourke said. “And that’s the goal every single week is to start that way, start fast, and start on our terms.”

If the Bobcats play clean, they’ll have a chance to notch the upset. And in doing so would serve up another reminder that Ohio is still playing football, Solich is still coaching and the Bobcats remain a threat.

In those 17 losses to power conference teams, Ohio was within one score in the fourth quarter seven other teams. The Bobcats are tired of near misses.

“That game (2005) kind of set the standard for this team going on under Coach Solich’s career here,” Luehrman said. “It was the real deal.

“That’s still the loudest I’ve ever heard Peden Stadium. We need more nights like that.”

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

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