Ohio seeks second straight bowl win
The Ohio Bobcats season began with such promise.
Coming off the university’s first-ever bowl game win in the 2011 Potato Bowl against Utah State, the Bobcats returned a large portion of their team and key contributors from that squad.
Visions of winning the Mid-American Conference title were certainly not far fetched. Heck, actually being ranked and possibly spoiling the Bowl Championship Series party were mumbled by some loyal Bobcats’ backers.
Unfortunately, the problem with a lot of non automatic qualifying schools is depth and Ohio wasn’t any different. The Bobcats were depleted in places by injuries and continually found themselves behind the proverbial 8-ball. The losses eventually proved too much for Ohio to overcome.
The Bobcats, who started the season 7-0, including a road win against Penn State the first week of the season, finished with an 8-4 mark and no berth in the MAC Title game earlier this month and a big question of what bowl game they’d actually be invited to.
That turned out to be Friday’s 37th annual Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Friday afternoon in a game that will kick off at 2 p.m. and be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
The bowl is technically tied into the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeast Conference, but due to eligible teams and number of bids, the bowl looked elsewhere to fill their slots.
So, the Bobcats will take on upstart Louisiana-Monroe in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. Louisiana-Monroe plays in the Sun Belt Conference and caught the eyes of the national audience in early September when it knocked off Arkansas, which was then ranked eighth in the country, in overtime, 34-31.
La.-Monroe also had Auburn and Baylor on the ropes before dropping close decisions prior to opening Sun Belt play. It’s only two losses in the conference came to bowl qualifiers La. Lafayette and Arkansas State.
The trip to the bowl is the first for the Warhawks in their history. They just joined the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1994.
The Bobcats stubbed their toe for the first time on Oct. 27 in Oxford against rival Miami of Ohio. Ohio was handed a 23-20 victory. It rebounded and pasted Eastern Michigan the following week, but didn’t taste victory again.
Losses to Bowling Green, at Ball State and at Kent State have the Bobcats reeling coming into this week’s game. The aforementioned loss to the Falcons was Ohio’s first on its home field since Oct. 15 of 2011.
However, all of the bad memories of the 2012 season have a chance to be overshadowed this week. Because, remember, a win against the Warhawks would be not only the second straight season to end with a bowl victory, but also the second bowl victory in the school’s history.
All told, Ohio has become a regular in bowl games under veteran head coach Frank Solich. This is its fourth straight appearance in a post-season game and fifth in seven years. Going to four straight bowl games is no small feat when you consider only 28 schools in the United States have accomplished it.
The Mid-American Conference, which sent six teams to bowl games, has struggled thus far. The conference is 1-2 and has Bowling Green in action today. Both Ball State and Toledo were routed in their respective bowl games. Northern Illinois, which won the conference and crashed the BCS, will take on Florida State in the Orange Bowl Tuesday. Kent State will play Arkansas State on Jan. 6.
If Ohio wins its bowl game, which its a 6-point underdog in, the Bobcats would become just the fourth MAC member to win two straight bowl games.
If Ohio is to win another bowl game, it’ll have to slow down a proficient La.-Monroe passing game that’s put up big numbers all season. The Warhawks have put the ball in the 499 times and completed 322 of those as a team for 3,560 yards.
The Warhawks won’t run the ball much Friday, but when they do it’s effective. They’ve ran for 1,752 yards and average 146 yards per game. On the ground, they’ve scored 24 touchdowns.
The Warhawks are led by junior quarterback Kolton Browning, who re-wrote the La. Monroe record book en route to earning first-team all Sun Belt Conference honors despite missing a game due to injury.
Browning passed for 2,830 yards and 27 touchdowns, while throwing just seven interceptions. He averaged 257 yards per game. He was also an effective runner as he showed in that game against Razorbacks. He ran for 441 yards and seven touchdowns, which led the team in both categories.
The top receiving option for the Warhawks is senior Brent Leonard. He caught 92 passes for 1,042 yards and 10 touchdowns. The big-play threat is Je’Ron Hamm, who’s caught 58 passes for 862 yards and six touchdowns.
Tavarese Maye is the third-leading pass catcher with 52 catches for 554 yards and three touchdowns. Colby Harper, who has only played in four games, has caught 29 passes for 303 yards.
Jyruss Edwards and Monterrel Washington have both ran for six touchdowns to complement Browning’s abilities in the ground game.
The Bobcats’ defense will certainly be pushed to the limit, but reports have indicated a few of the banged up players could be making a return to the field this week. For the season, Ohio is allowing 229 yards through the air and 165 yards on the ground per game.
The Ohio defense is ranked 61st nationally in total defense. It has forced 22 turnovers this season.
Leading the way for the Bobcats’ stoptroops is middle linebacker Keith Moore, who has made 89 tackles, a sack and has 3.5 tackles for loss.
The other linebacker, Alphonso Lewis, has recorded 60 tackles, which is the second best on the team. Strong safety Josh Kristoff is third on the team in tackles. The Pickerington native has 56 tackles, including 31 solos. Jelani Woseley had 56 total tackles and seven for loss.
The balance of the defensive unit, which will get the start on Friday, includes defensive end Corey Hasting, nose guard Neal Huynh, defensive tackle Carl Jones and end Nic Barber up front. In the secondary, Larenzo Fisher and Ian Wells will start at the corners, while Gerald Moore is ticketed to start at free safety.
The Bobcats’ offense isn’t as high powered as some teams in the nation. It averages 30.5 points a game. However, the way it goes about its business is impressive because of the balance the Bobcats achieve each week.
That’s to be expected, however, when you have an exceptionally talented quarterback and a hard-nosed, efficient tailback.
Junior Tyler Tettleton, who burst onto the scene last season, enjoyed another productive campaign. He threw for 2,513 yards and 16 touchdowns this season against just three interceptions despite throwing the ball 345 times.
Tettleton-type seasons don’t happen every year in Athens. Actually, his total this season is the second most all time and he’s the only quarterback in Bobcats’ history to throw for at least 2,500 stripes in consecutive years.
Junior running back Beau Blankenship has also been impressive. He’s carried the ball 293 times for 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns. He ran for more than 100 yards eight times this season, which tied the school record. If he’s able to run for at least 80 yards this week, he’ll crack the Top 15 on the all-time single-season MAC listing.
Ryan Boykin and Tettleton have each ran for four touchdowns, which trails only Blankenship in that category.
Tettleton’s favorite target in the passing game is Donte Foster, who has caught 56 passes for 629 yards and seven touchdowns. Bakari Bussey, who is Foster’s top backup on the depth chart, has caught 37 passes for 313 yards.
Tyler Futrell has hauled in 23 passes for 289 yards and two scores. Blankenship is also a solid pass catcher with 20 receptions for 177 yards and a score out of the backfield. Chase Cochran and Troy Hill have both caught three touchdowns.
The Bobcats’ offensive line is comprised of Skyler Allen (center), John Prior (left tackle), Jon Lechner (left guard), Eric Herman (right guard) and Bryce Dietz (left guard).
The Warhawks’ defense is led by R.J. Young at a linebacker spot. He’s recorded 90 tackles. After him, the next closest tackler for La. Monroe is cornerback Rob’Donovan Lewis with 65 tackles and two picks. Isiah Newsome is the team leader with four interceptions.
Ray Stovall leads the Warhawks with 13.5 tackles for loss.
If the game boils down to special teams, the advantage certainly lies with Ohio.
The Bobcats possess one of the steadiest kickers in the country in senior Matt Weller. He finished the regular season with 400 career points, which is the best in Ohio history.
Weller struggled on field goals early in the season, but since the calendar flipped to October, he’s been 13-of-15 on three pointers. He was just 9-of-15 in the first month of the season.
THE ESPN broadcast will be called by Dave Lamont, Kelly Stouffer and Cara Capuano will work the sidelines. This will be the Bobcats’ 11th appearance on the ESPN Family of Networks this season.
IT WAS easy to tell the fans in Athens were pumped for Bobcats’ football this season. Ohio drew an average of 21,844 fans a game at Peden Stadium, which is an all-time best.
LA.-MONROE is coached by Todd Berry, who is in his 11th season at the helm. He was named Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year this season.
THE BOBCATS will take on Louisville, North Texas, Marshall and Austin Peay in the non-league schedule next season. All of those games except for Louisville will be played at Peden Stadium.
THE BOBCATS flew to Shreveport on Monday. They wrapped up their game practice on Wednesday and will take today off outside of a brief walk through.
THE TEAMS will take part in a pep rally and parade today through Shreveport.