Ohio University looks to take next step in MAC
By RICK THORP
Times Leader Sports Writer
DETROIT — The Ohio University football team ended its 2017 season with a bang, crushing UAB, 41-6, in the Bahamas Bowl.
Despite that, the Bobcats cleaned out their lockers with a bitter taste in their mouths. Despite a 9-4 campaign, it was one that failed to yield a Mid-American Conference championship, nor an appearance in the MAC title game, something Ohio was picked by many to do in the preseason.
“Some of the guys watched the MAC Championship game and we weren’t in it,” Ohio redshirt senior running back AJ Ouellette said during MAC Media Day at Ford Field.
That sparked an active offseason in the weight room
“Everyone was getting after it this summer,” Ouellette added. “I know these guys are hungry.”
Ohio opens the season a week from Saturday against Howard with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. The Bobcats are, again, the cream of the conference crop — tabbed by the media to win it all. But Ouellette and his teammates know they’ll have to work a little bit harder to bring a MAC crown to Athens for the first time in 50 years.
“We just have to play our game,” Ouellette said. “Toward the end of (last year), I think we were believing the hype too much and thinking a MAC school couldn’t beat us. Being in the MAC, you have to realize anyone can win any game.”
Ohio started 5-1 in the MAC last fall and controlled its own destiny in the East Division before being tripped up at Akron and Buffalo to end the regular season. Quarterback Nathan Rourke said the way the season ended has certainly provided plenty of motivation to prepare for this season.
“We just have to finish what we started last year,” the junior said in the Motor City. “We had a good run, but we just have to finish out the season.
“We have a tough schedule, but we need to finish strong. It’ll be tough, but I think we have to put everything together and hit our stride at the right time.”
Frank Solich, entering his 14th season at Ohio, said he’s seen a bit more pep in his team’s step this offseason.
“I think they came off of (that disappointment) wanting to have a great season this year,” said Solich, who enters 2018 three victories shy of 100 on the Bobcats’ sideline. “They’ve worked hard in the winter and in the camp, and they’ve worked hard this summer. Obviously, that’s a good sign.”
It’s also to Ohio’s benefit that they play host to the Zips and Bulls to conclude regular-season play this season. The MAC slate begins with road tests at Kent State (Oct. 6) and Northern Illinois (Oct. 13), before the home lidlifter vs. Bowling Green (Oct. 20).
Ball State visits Peden Stadium on Oct. 25. The Bobcats open November with road trips to Western Michigan (Nov. 1) and Miami (Nov. 7).
Ohio’s non-conference schedule also includes back-to-back trips to Virginia (Sept. 15) and Cincinnati (Sept. 22) and a home date against UMass.
The Bobcats have won seven of their last eight season openers, including 2017’s 59-0 pasting of Hampton. If Ohio is to make it eight of nine, it will do so behind an offense led by Ouelette, a second team all-MAC selection last year.
“He’s a really strong leader and a high-character guy who works really hard in the weight room,” Rourke said. “The guys’ really feed off him. They want to reciprocate what he’s doing.”
After missing all but a few carries on 2016 due to an injury, Ouelette returned strong last fall, rushing for 1,006 yards and seven scores, becoming the first Bobcat to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau since 2012. He started all 13 games.
Not far behind on the rushing list for the Bobcats was Rourke, who burst onto the season in Week 2 vs. Purdue. He finished the season with 912 yards rushing and 21 TDs.
Solich said having the pair back, along with quarterback Quinton Maxwell, gives Ohio many options offensively.
“It allows you to be somewhat multiple,” he said. “Last year,we did a good job of establishing the running game. We did a good job of coming off the running game with play-action passes and getting explosive plays that way. We probably need to work a little more on our short passing game but, obviously, we have the ability to run the ball and we have the ability to throw it. There will be a lot of good teams out there wanting to stop us from doing both.”
Maxwell, a junior, started the season before giving way to Rourke on Week 2.
All told, eight starters return on offense.
“Our offense has been clicking this summer,” Ouellette said. “Everyone is on the same page. We’re expecting a great year.”
Papi White, a senior who paced Ohio with 36 receptions and 631 yards receiving last year, returns to bolster the air corps. He, along with, classmate Andrew Meyer (35/483) are just two speedsters Solich sees as potential targets.
“I think that part of our offense will play out well,” he said. “We have four or five guys that we can put on the field. It’s maybe the best group we’ve had for some time.”
Four offensive linemen return in seniors Joe Anderson (LG) and Joe Lowry (LT), junior Austen Pleasants (RT) and sophomore Hagen Meservy (RG). Sophomore Brett Kitrell is a name to watch at center. Anderson and Lowry started every game last year.
Troy Mangen is gone at tight end, but senior Connor Brown is a candidate to replace him.
Ohio’s defense was hit hard by graduation, with just four starters returning, including three in the secondary.
“We lost some guys on the inside,” Solich acknowledged. “We lost two linebackers that were special players (Chad Moore and Quentin Poling). We lost two inside linemen (Tony Porter and Cleon Aloese) that were really tough, physical players that penetrated and didn’t get knocked off the ball.
Among those vying for playing time is Chukwudi Chukwu, the former Linsly standout, now a redshirt junior.
Leading the experienced backfield is junior Javon Hagan. The 2017 second team all-MAC pick is the team’s top returning tackler (he had 85 last year). He started 13 games along with returning corner Jalen Fox (42 tackles in 2017) and free safety Kylen Nelson (53 tackles in 2017).
“He’s been elected a two-time captain,” Solich pointed out about Hagan, “so that should tell you how much his teammates respect him and appreciate what he’s about on and off the field.
“He’s really counting on having a great year. He has the body that you look for in a safety.”
Ohio’s special teams are solid, led by the return of kicker Louie Zervos. Named again to the Lou Groza Preseason Watch List, the redshirt junior earned third team all-MAC honors a year ago after going 15 of 18 on field goals (long 46) and converting 61 PATs