No. 26: Ohio
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 9, 2012
Only one significant hurdle remains to be passed, and no, it’s not a national championship. There’s no amount of beer in Athens — though there’s a lot of beer, and a lot of beer drinking, in Athens — that could convince even the most optimistic Ohio fan that a national title lies in the making. But consider what Ohio has achieved over the last three seasons: not just three bowl bids but a bowl win, not just one MAC East title but two, not just one eight-win season but three, and last season, the program’s first 10-win season since 1968 – also the year of the program’s last MAC title. What’s missing, of course, is that elusive conference crown; the Bobcats have been many things under Frank Solich, but this program’s inability to seal the deal in December looms large over all of its recent success. It’s time to put an end to this, Ohio, and it’s time to do it in style.
14 (6 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
at Penn St.
- Sept. 8
New Mexico St.
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 27
at Miami (Ohio)
- Nov. 1
- Nov. 7
- Nov. 14
at Ball St.
- Nov. 23
at Kent St.
Last year’s prediction
Listen: you can’t ignore the schedule. It’s a slate conducive to a 10-win season, one that holds little challenges beyond the typical B.C.S. conference team in September and the Temple, Miami (Ohio) game in MAC play. Quite simply, it’s the easiest schedule in the country, and Ohio shouldn’t even break a sweat in the run to eight wins. Anything less than eight wins would be awfully embarrassing, to be honest. Unfortunately, Ohio’s projected win total will be slammed because of the schedule, and rightfully so. But don’t sleep on the Bobcats, who are good regardless of who they play, and don’t overlook the fact that Solich has done an outstanding job with the program. The Bobcats will take home the MAC East, with a conference title game date with Toledo waiting in the wings.
In a nutshell The year needs to be viewed in a historical perspective. The 10-4 finish marked Ohio’s first double-digit win season in more than 40 years, as noted. The 10 wins are one fewer than Brian Knorr, Solich’s predecessor, posted from 2000-4 with the Bobcats; alone, they’re two more than Tom Lichtenberg won from 1990-94 and one more than Cleve Bryant won from 1985-89. So that puts 10 wins into perspective, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s safe to say that this team was better than the nine-win version in 2010 — mostly on offense, though the defense, second in the MAC in scoring and fourth overall, did enough to stay afloat. So what if the schedule was easy? All MAC schedules are easy, some more than others, and the Bobcats got it done. Put another feather in Solich’s cap.
High point A 35-31 win over Temple to win the MAC East. It’s official: Ohio owned the Owls when it counted. A comeback win over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl stands out, as does a 44-7 rout of Marshall in non-conference play.
Low point The MAC title game loss. This one was especially painful: Up 20-0 at the half, the Bobcats allowed Northern Illinois to close with 23 unanswered points, including a field goal as time expired. Yeah, this one hurt.
Tidbit There are eight F.B.S. programs in Ohio, as you know. Last fall, Ohio tied for the most wins in the state for the first time since 1968, when the Bobcats and Ohio State both won 10 games, and nearly won more games than any Ohio-based program for the first time since 1962. The late collapse against Northern Illinois cost the Bobcats what would have been an 11th win, had they then gone on to beat Utah State; at the end of the year, both Ohio and Cincinnati had 10 wins.
Tidbit (magic number edition) Ohio’s magic number: 100. Since Solich’s first season in 2005, the Bobcats are 30-4 when featuring a 100-yard rusher. This includes a 6-0 mark last fall, when Ohio ranked 24th nationally in rushing, not to mention a 14-0 record since the start of the 2008 season. On the other hand, the Bobcats are 12-18 under Solich when allowing an opposing rusher to gain 100 or more yards. This includes two wins last fall when Ohio not only allowed an individual to gain 100 or more yards but a team to gain 300 0r more yards: Temple and Utah State combined for 653 yards on the ground but still lost, by four and one point, respectively.
Tidbit (openers edition) This fall marks the ninth time since 1936 that Ohio will open a season with a game against an opponent from the Big Ten. While these openers have not been kind to the Bobcats – only one win, a 6-0 decision over Illinois in 1938 – they often result in a successful season; a coincidence, but one worth nothing. Over these eight seasons, Ohio has gone a combined 44-38-1, winning games at a 53.7 percent clip. The Bobcats have won five games in each year but one, when they went 4-7 in 2005.
Former players in the N.F.L.
8 WR Phil Bates (Seattle), WR LaVon Brazill (Indianapolis), NT Landon Cohen (Arizona), LB Noah Keller (St. Louis), S Mike Mitchell (Oakland), CB Julian Posey (New York Jets), WR Taylor Price (Jacksonville), P Dave Zastudil (Arizona).
Arbitrary top five list
Nebraska running backs, 1983-97
1. Mike Rozier.
2. Ahman Green.
3. I.M. Hipp.
4. Roger Craig.
5. Lawrence Phillips.
Frank Solich (Nebraska ’66), 50-40 over seven seasons at Ohio. After going 4-8 in 2008, the second time the Bobcats had won four games in a season under Solich, Ohio has won a combined 27 games over the last three seasons. The initial four-win season came in 2005, Solich’s first year in Athens. He quickly turned things around, however, bringing the Bobcats to nine wins in 2006 and a 6-6 mark in 2007; the 15 victories over a two-year span was the program’s most since 1968-69. In fact, the 9-5 mark in 2006 featured a MAC East championship, the program’s first conference title of any kind since 1968. Of course, it’s hard to discuss Frank Solich without touching on his long, meaningful association with Nebraska, where he started as the freshman team coach in 1979, began coaching the running backs in 1983 and was promoted to be Tom Osborne’s replacement as head coach in 1998. Over his time with the Cornhuskers, Solich coached two Heisman Trophy winners (Mike Rozier and Eric Crouch), countless all-conference and all-American performers and served as an assistant under Osborne for three national championships (1994-5, 1997). As head coach, Solich compiled a 58-19 record from 1998-2003, which included three double-digit win seasons, a Big 12 championship and an appearance in the 2001 national championship game, where the Huskers lost to Miami (Fla.) by a fairly significant margin. Fired unceremoniously with one game remaining in the 2003 season, Solich was out of coaching entirely in 2004 before being hired at Ohio in 2005. None of his MAC coaching brethren can match his experience or his success. Though Solich has been unable to duplicate his success at Nebraska with the Bobcats — no one thought he would — he has made Ohio into a far more competitive program, as well as a threat to win the conference championship in every season. When he does decide to leave, the program will be in a far better place. He fields his best team yet in 2012.
Players to watch
There are many ways to break into the lineup as a first-year starting quarterback: you can slide into the role, steadily accumulating experience and comfort throughout the season, or you can break fall camp in August, roll into the season opener and kick in the front door. Junior quarterback Tyler Tettleton chose the latter. He entered last season as the clear starter, having outplayed his competition during the spring, and carried into the starting role some game experience – he played in a few games in 2009, as a true freshman, but took a redshirt a year later. But it was clear right from the start, when Tettleton threw for two touchdowns and ran for another pair against New Mexico State, that Ohio had not only found a competent quarterback but also one with tremendous upside in this system.
By year’s end, Tettleton had put together the finest season by a quarterback in school history. He completed 265 of 413 attempts (64.2 percent) for 3,306 yards, becoming the first passer in school history to crack the 3,000-yard mark. He tossed 28 touchdowns against 10 picks, throwing for at least one score in every game but one, the MAC title game loss to Northern Illinois. Tettleton added 621 yards on the ground, second-most of the team, to go with another 10 touchdowns – really growing as a runner over the year’s second half, when this offense gelled.
There’s not much more to add. This passing game was dink-and-dunk for the first few weeks before spreading its wings from October on; Tettleton can get the ball downfield, as he proved over this stretch. He’s accurate in the short passing game. He’s going to be an even larger dual-threat option this fall, if last year’s final two months are any indication. Tettleton – like the rest of this offense – is now a year wiser in this system. There is no quarterback I more enjoyed watching grow over the course of last season; heading into September, this gifted, adaptable, productive and promising junior is poised to cement his place as the finest quarterback in school history. Tettleton and Western Michigan’s Alex Carder are neck-and-neck in the race to be the MAC’s best quarterback – and there’s a huge gap between this pair and the rest of the field.
Tettleton’s running ability will help Ohio offset the departure of Donte Harden, last year’s leading rusher. The Bobcats can also tout a very nice backfield pairing in juniors Beau Blankenship (462 yards) and Ryan Boykin (430). This pair combined for 197 carries last fall, rotating in and out of the lineup as Harden’s backup, and showed both the ability to shoulder the workload and a nice burst outside the tackles. But they’re both bigger backs, between-the-tackles backs, so Ohio could use a change-of-pace option in certain situations. That might be pint-sized true freshman Daz’mond Patterson, but he’ll need to prove to this staff that he can do the little things – not merely run hard but also provide support in pass protection.
There’s no reason to think that Ohio’s running game will take a step backwards after last season’s improvement. You can pencil Tettleton in for 750 yards, I’d think; 531 of his 621 yards a year ago came after September. And Blankenship and Boykin are the sort of steady, fall-forward runners Solich likes in his offense. Hopefully, Boykin can help the Bobcats replace Harden’s usefulness in the passing game. Boykin made 14 grabs a season ago.
Preparation is the key to success. Heading into last season, Ohio knew, one year down the road, that it would need to find replacements for its franchise tackles – the great Joe Flading on the right side, A.J. Strum on the left. So the Bobcats shuffled John Prior and Ryan McGrath, both juniors, into the mix with the first-team group, getting the pair on the field for roughly 200 plays over the course of the season. While Flading in particular will be tough to replace, that Ohio worked Prior and McGrath into the mix will help Ohio’s line remain the best in the MAC.
Prior’s interesting: He started his career at Florida State before transferring to Ohio, and based on how the Bobcats’ staff tracks line play, was one of the team’s three best performers up front a season ago – in a smaller capacity, but he does not lack for talent. The one change from last year’s group is that the strength shifts from tackle to guard, where Ohio has an absolutely superb pairing in junior Jon Lechner and senior Eric Herman, the latter a second-team all-MAC pick at right guard a year ago. Seniors Skyler Allen and J.D. Bales are battling for the job at center; Allen’s the favorite, having started the last two seasons, but Bales did make a run at the starting job over the final three games of last season.
Most of all, this offense is entering its second year running the spread passing system it picked up from Troy during the 2010 New Orleans Bowl. You won’t see any tentativeness from this offense; instead, you’ll see the Bobcats come out firing, hitting their stride in September, not midway through the season, and there’s reason to believe that this team will make another sizable jump across the board. This offense is going to be outstanding – very good, best-in-the-MAC good, top-20-in-the-nation good.
Ohio’s strength last fall was stopping the run, those two wins over Temple and Utah State notwithstanding. The Bobcats were also able to get some consistent pressure, ranking fifth in the MAC and 45th nationally in tackles for loss, but this pressure didn’t translate to the pass rush – Ohio ranked ninth in the MAC and 85th nationally in this category, which led the Bobcats to encounter some difficulty slowing down the pass with consistency. Looking towards September, a very experienced defensive front must not only continue playing well against the run but also do a nicer job collapsing the pocket on third down. With the amount of experience returning in the secondary, the Bobcats need only to rattle the opposition’s timing in the passing game to rank among the top three defenses in the MAC.
There is a hole at middle linebacker, however. It’s going to be difficult to replace Noah Keller’s wall-t0-wall production, but not impossible: Ohio just needs one of two hypothetical scenarios to become a reality. The first is that one of the two incumbents, sophomore Joe Stepanski or junior Keith Moore (35 tackles), takes control of the position during fall camp – with Moore, the veteran, coming off a nice close to last season. The second scenario would find JUCO transfer Tim Edmond, a sophomore, learning this defense in time to start the season opener. That would be Ohio’s dream; Edmond was recruited to slide into a starting role on the second level.
The Bobcats are locked in at outside linebacker. Senior Jelani Woseley (53 tackles, 5.0 for loss) returns on the weak side, backed up by Moore, who will slide outside if Edmond grabs the top spot in the middle. It’ll be senior Alphonso Lewis (64 tackles, 5.0 for loss) on the strong side. One thing to consider: Ohio will very often drop an outside linebacker in favor of a fifth defensive back, not only in the opening formation but throughout the game, and nearly always on passing downs. While one of Lewis or Woseley dropped off last fall, look for both to stay on the field in coverage with Keller gone – unless Edmond proves up to the task, or Ohio wants to keep Moore on the field in a pass-rushing capacity.
The defensive line returns every cog of last year’s two-deep outside of end Curtis Meyers. He’ll be replaced by senior Corey Hastings (48 tackles, 3.5 sacks), which is an exciting development: Hastings made plays last fall despite playing primarily inside, and his 261-pound frame is much better suited at end than on the nose. The rest of the line remains intact – and all four starters are seniors. Tremayne Scott (62 tackles, 8.0 for loss) is an all-MAC candidate at end; his backup – and the top reserve end – is Nic Barber (18 tackles, 3.0 sacks), who was one of the few down linemen to get to the quarterback last fall. It’ll be Neal Huynh (32 tackles) and Carl Jones (22 tackles) inside, backed up by a promising sophomore in Antwan Crutcher.
Last fall, Ohio went into the season returning only one full-time starter in the secondary – though the Bobcats also returned safety Gerald Moore, who was coming off an injury. This year, Ohio brings back most of last season’s defensive backfield, from Moore (84 tackles, 2 interceptions) to a pair of game-tested strong safeties to one of the top two cornerbacks in the MAC. I think you’ll see Ohio make things more difficult for opposing quarterbacks in 2012 – and I also think that the Bobcats will force more turnovers than they did a year ago.
It’s Moore at free safety, and he’s a good one. While Ohio needs to settle on a starting strong safety, it can turn to a pair of options who combined to start 13 games last fall in sophomore Josh Kristoff (52 tackles) and junior Xavier Hughes (24 tackles, 3 interceptions). At worst, the Bobcats know that they can go four deep at safety, with Moore, Kristoff and Hughes joined by sophomore Thad Ingol, who worked his way into the rotation late last season.
It’s a similar story at cornerback. The Bobcats have another clear starter in senior Travis Carrie (49 tackles, 4 interception), a second-team all-MAC pick last fall. Carrie can do it all: he’s physical against the run – he’s a bigger cornerback, at 6’0 and 212 pounds – always near the football and athletic enough to be a weapon in the return game. But as at strong safety, Ohio needs to pick a starter to line up on the opposite side. It could be senior Octavius Leftwich, the younger brother of last year’s starter, or junior Jamil Shaw (18 tackles) – or even a youngster like sophomore Larenzo Fisher, who progressed nicely after joining the mix in late September. The Bobcats also have holdovers like senior Ryan Clark, so there are options. I’d rather see Ohio go with Fisher or Shaw than Leftwich.
Clark might get squeezed out of a starting role at cornerback, but look for him to take over as Ohio’s primary weapon on kick returns. As noted, Carrie augments his all-MAC play on defense with all-MAC punt return skills; he averaged 12.5 yards per return last fall, bringing one back for a touchdown. The Bobcats also return the MAC’s best kicker in senior Matt Weller, who connected on 25 of 34 attempts last fall. A few issues: Ohio needs a punter, with freshman Grant Venham the early favorite to replace Paul Hershey; might break in a new long snapper on both punts and field goals, with both redshirt freshmen; and will have a new special teams coordinator in tight ends coach Brian Haines, who replaces Fresno State-bound Pete Germano.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver There are question marks at wide receiver, where Ohio must replace LaVon Brazill, but the cupboard isn’t bare. For one, the Bobcats have one of the MAC’s best receiving tight ends in senior Jordan Thompson (24 receptions for 258 yards), who retained a role in this passing game despite last season’s shift into the new system. One thing to look for is Thompson serving in a bigger role both in the red zone and on shorter third down plays – while they won’t burn teams deep over the middle, Thompson and redshirt freshman Derek Roback are big enough to create separation on the intermediate level.
Junior Donte Foster (30 for 353, 6 touchdowns) will become Ohio’s next lead target in the passing game, though he won’t technically fill Brazill’s shoes: Mario Dovell, last year’s backup, will play Brazill’s former position. And Dovell is intriguing – he made two long receptions last fall – if unproven; he’ll need to be consistent, of course. Rounding out the starting lineup is either senior Tyler Futrell or junior Bakari Bussey (11 for 112), with the latter last season’s backup to Riley Dunlop. While there’s a drop in experience and proven production, I can see a few reasons for optimism. One is the fact that the Bobcats don’t lack for athleticism; this group might be even more explosive than last year’s receiver corps, in fact. This is also a young group that will continue to develop throughout the season, with as many as two or three new faces moving into the rotation by midseason. Ohio simply needs one target, whether it’s Foster or someone else, to step into Brazill’s role as Tettleton’s go-to receiver. The passing will keep clicking.
Game(s) to watch
All eyes will be on Beaver Stadium for the season opener, even if they’re focused on Bill O’Brien and the Nittany Lions, not Solich and the Bobcats. But it’s still a great chance for Ohio to make some noise nationally, as there’s no other game the rest of the way – unless Ohio heads into November undefeated – that will draw the same level of national attention. Another tough road date awaits two weeks later, though Ohio had its way with Marshall a season ago. You really couldn’t ask for an easier schedule: Ohio might not play a bowl team all season, though I do think that P.S.U., Marshall, Bowling Green, Eastern Michigan and another pair of MAC opponents have a good shot at getting to six wins.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell The Bobcats wouldn’t beat Florida. Nor Missouri, Oklahoma State, California or Auburn. Perhaps not even N.C. State, though it would be close; likewise with Nevada, Mississippi State and Houston. Well, guess what: Ohio isn’t playing the Gators, Tigers, Cowboys or the Golden Bears. They’re playing a thin, beaten-down Penn State team, a borderline bowl team in Marshall and a MAC slate straight from heaven, and the Bobcats are going to rip through this schedule like a roomful of Ohio underclassmen tearing through a 30-pack of Busch Light. The Bobcats are about to embark on the most successful season in school history.
The schedule is one thing, and it’s a great thing – a wonderful thing, a red carpet laid out for Ohio to stroll with ease to the MAC title game and a double-digit win regular season. But there’s more here than just an easy schedule, starting with a coaching staff led by Solich and loaded with assistants that have been front and center with the program during its recent resurgence. There’s nothing that will surprise this group, no first-quarter flurry that will rattle them, and this steadiness trickles down through this entire roster, from a fifth-year senior down to a true freshman.
Schedule is one thing, coaching another. Ohio is also extremely talented, not to mention experienced where it counts: quarterback, offensive line, defensive line, secondary, kicker. No other team in the MAC even sniffs the sort of experience that the Bobcats bring to the table in 2012. In addition, this offense will be in its second season running the pass-first spread system, which should lead to even greater production from Tettleton and the passing game. Nothing should stop Ohio from dominating the East division, nor should anything prevent this team from matching last year’s win total.
Nor should anything stop the Bobcats from claiming its first MAC title in more than 40 years. No other team in the league can match all that the Bobcats bring to the table, from this staff to the potential for offensive fireworks to an unspectacular but steady defense. With this team and this schedule, anything less than a 10-2 regular season would be very surprising. And if the Bobcats get past Penn State in the opener, gaining even more confidence, this team could – should, even – be the first MAC team since Ball State to post a 12-0 regular season. Then we’re talking a B.C.S. bowl; then we’re talking about Ohio really breaking through, and breaking through in style.
Dream season The Bobcats beat Penn State, beat Marshall, beat everyone else and then notch a victory in the MAC title game, earning an automatic B.C.S. bid.
Nightmare season Ohio goes 2-2 during non-conference play and drop three games against MAC competition: Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan and Kent State.
In case you were wondering
Where do Ohio fans congregate? Bobcat Attack is, and has been for a few years now, the best place to talk Ohio sports. And a new addition: Jason Arkley, who you can also follow on Twitter, covers Ohio sports for The Athens Messenger.
Ohio’s all-name nominee LB Storm Timson.
Through 99 teams 399,983.
Who is No. 25? Tomorrow’s university’s athletic products include a pair of baseball players who rank among the top eight in career hits and another who led the senior circuit in home runs four times.
Tags: Alphonso Lewis, Bakari Bussey, Beau Blankenship, Brian Haines, Corey Hastings, Donte Foster, Eric Herman, Frank Solich, Gerald Moore, Jelani Woseley, John Prior, Jon Lechner, Jordan Thompson, Keith Moore, Larenzo Fisher, MAC, Matt Weller, Ohio, Ryan Boykin, Ryan Clark, Tim Edmond, Travis Carrie, Tremayne Scott, Tyler Tettleton
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