Note: This preview appears in the Friday, Aug. 30 newspaper on Page B1.
The Bobcats kick off the 124th season in program history on Saturday afternoon.
But how Ohio started season No. 123 will be front and center.
The Bobcats take on FCS foe Rhode Island inside Peden Stadium beginning at 2 p.m. Ohio has played an FCS opponent as part of the non-conference schedule 13 times in head coach Frank Solich’s previous 14 years at the helm.
And the Bobcats have done the job in those matchups. Ohio is 13-0 under Solich vs. the FCS with an average margin of victory of 25 points.
Then came Howard. Ohio escaped the 2018 opener against Howard, 38-32, after wiping out a 16-3 deficit thanks to a +4 edge in turnovers and a special teams touchdown. The Bobcats gave up 645 yards to an FCS offense and nearly opened what turned out to be a nine-win season with a gigantic thud.
With the Rams coming to town, making sure there’s not a Howard 2.0 scenario is priority No. 1 for Ohio and Solich.
“We looked at that hard,” Solich admitted this week. “Were we in great shape for the game? Did we work them too hard leading up to the game?
“We did study that, and I don’t know if there’s any one simple formula for making it work better, but we’re trying some things.”
Ohio is 9-5 in season openers under Solich, two of the last three have been decidedly less than stellar. In 2016, the Bobcats dropped a 56-54 triple OT decision to Texas State in the season opener.
A good, sharp start has been a primary talking point for the Bobcats for the last two weeks.
“We’re taking it one practice at a time. We’re coming into the game confident, but not over confident,” said junior defensive end and team captain Will Evans.
“That’s just due to how we played against Howard. We’re using it as motivation but we’re also using it to humble ourselves.”
The Bobcats will be facing a Rams program that is on an upswing. Rhode Island head coach Jim Fleming helped the Rams to a 6-5 mark in 2018 — the program’s first winning record in 18 years. Fleming has a long history in college football, 29 years, and is familiar with the MAC, Solich and the Bobcats. He was part of the defensive staff at Akron in 2005; the Zips won the MAC title that year in Solich’s first season in Athens.
And the Rams have some talent. Their five losses last year all came against FBS teams or programs in the Top 25 of the FCS poll. In 2017, Rhode Island lost in overtime at Central Michigan. Just last year, the Rams came up short in a 56-49 shootout loss at UConn.
The Rams will have a new quarterback, but there will be weapons to test Ohio’s defense in much the same way Howard did a year ago. Senior flanker Aaron Parker (61 catches, 955 yards, 10 TDs) is an All-American candidate on the outside. Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Coulter (42-604) and senior Ahmere Dorsey (led the nation in return yardage in 2018) give the Rams more than a few threats to beat Ohio over the top.
The Rams defense will be keyed by man-coverage and pressure provided by a deep front seven led by returning rushers in outside linebacker L.B. Mack III (6-0 sacks) and defensive end Andre Bibeault (4.5 sacks).
“There are a lot of reasons not to take them lightly. They have some All-Americans in preseason; they certainly have all-conference players on both sides of the ball, so you’ve got to be ready to go against these guys,” Solich said. “We need to get off to better starts in our earlier games and that’s not going to be easy because of the competition.”
Ohio begins 2019 as the pick to win the MAC East Division, and the MAC Championship. That belief is fueled by the return of QB Nathan Rourke — who has more than 6,000 yards of offense and 77 career touchdowns — a defense that returned to form late last season, and the consistency of a program built by Solich.
The Bobcats head into the opener with few ‘big’ questions, and just a couple small nagging ones. Ohio had a relatively healthy fall camp.
The table is set for Ohio to come out and put the memory of a near-debacle against Howard behind them.
“New year, new team. But we can’t forget about that either,” said senior left tackle Austen Pleasants. “You got to learn from your mistakes. We got to come out ready to roll.
“It’s an opponent. It doesn’t matter if they’re FCS or FBS, it doesn’t matter if they’re Division II or Division III. I don’t care.
“One rep at a time. One play at a time. One opponent at a time.”
2019 will be the last chance Rourke has to deliver a MAC championship. That chase won’t be affected but whatever the outcome of the opener happens to be, but it can send a clear signal that the Bobcats deserve the mantle as MAC favorite.
That’s why Rourke is concerned with chasing records, or matching the gaudy offensive productive of the last two seasons — both record-setters in the Ohio book. It’s about winning, and playing your best football every chance you get.
That first chance comes against Rhode Island.
“We’ve been record-setting, but we’ve been walking away after the end of the season without an important piece of hardware, right? We recognize that. We want to win games. We want to be consistent,” Rourke said.
“That’s the main thing right
now. Everything else is just kind of out there.”