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At 73 years old, Frank Solich is just getting started at Ohio

His 13th Ohio team was his most high-upside squad yet. It could be more of the same in 2018.

MAC Championship - Western Michigan v Ohio Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

At all times, you’re just a quarterback recruit away from changing your program entirely.

Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote this about a steady Ohio program.

Ohio’s job in the MAC has been to play the role of “gritty big-game opponent that Team A finally overcomes in the fourth quarter.” The Bobcats do it in MAC title games, and they do it in bowls — they gave 10-win Troy fits before falling by five in 2016, did the same to 11-win Appalachian State in 2015, and led a 10-win ECU in the fourth quarter in 2013 before losing by 17.

This is a fine life. Compared to Ohio’s pre-Solich existence, it’s a great life. Ohio is the steady Good Guy, the Bill Pullman-in-Sleepless in Seattle who loses to the leap of faith.

A few months later, Ohio became the leap of faith. Solich, in his 13th year in Athens, turned his offense to an overlooked sophomore quarterback and fielded his best, most explosive, most volatile team.

Solich had crafted a niche. His team was going to finish between 70th and 100th in S&P+ (nine times in 11 years from 2006-16) and win between six and eight games (six times in seven years between 2010-16). The defense was going to be mostly sturdy (57th in Def. S&P+ in 2015, 61st in 2016), and if the offense could rebound from a frustrating, injury-plagued 2016, then they would put themselves in position to become the steady team that sneaked away with the MAC East title when the more volatile team slipped up.

Instead, the offense surged under new quarterback Nathan Rourke. And the Bobcats became the volatile team that slipped up.

It all went so well for a while. During a Week 2 loss to Purdue, starting QB Quinton Maxwell began the game 1-for-6 passing, and Rourke stepped in and went 16-for-23. He started the next week against Kansas and produced a 151.2 passer rating, and 42 points per game, over the next three games. He briefly lost his stride in a loss to CMU, but the Bobcats rebounded by outscoring BGSU, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), and eventual conference champion Toledo by an average score of 45-18.

By the end, Rourke had produced a passer rating of 140 or higher in six games while rushing for at least 100 yards five times. Ohio had rebounded from 115th to 30th in Off. S&P+. But in the game that decided the East, a stunning 37-34 loss to Akron, Rourke threw two interceptions, Ohio fumbled a kickoff, Akron scored twice on drives that started inside the Ohio 25, and the Bobcats allowed a 27-6 run from which they couldn’t quite recover.

They fell to Buffalo a week later, too, before rebounding to crush UAB in the Bahamas Bowl.

Breaking the S&P+ ratings into a single-game number, Ohio played at six games at the 82nd percentile or higher (approximately a top-20 or 25 level) and three in the 30th percentile or lower. Their high points, plus Toledo’s odd bowl debacle against Appalachian State, were good enough to give the Bobcats the best overall S&P+ rating of the season. And they failed to make the MAC title game. This was very much not the typical Ohio story.

It still ended with a what-if, though. That’s not Solich’s first. You have to be a pretty good coach to come up with such a long list of what-could’ve-been games, but while lesser Bobcat teams slipped up in the MAC title game, the best Solich team stumbled before that.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that a lot of the components of last year’s occasionally brilliant team return in 2018. Rourke’s got two more years to go, and Ohio will be led by an exciting corps of seniors: running back A.J. Ouellette, slot receiver Papi White, all-conference guard Joe Anderson, linebacker Evan Croutch, corner Jalen Fox, safety Kylan Nelson, etc. The defense has quite a few key players to replace but has a nice veteran base for finding replacements.

Offense

2017 Ohio offensive radar

A product of Elmore, Ala., Rourke didn’t end up with any major offers out of high school, so he went the JUCO route, piloting the Fort Scott C.C. offense for a year. He threw for 2,367 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 13 INTs in southeastern Kansas, and while 50 sacks (!) tamped down the rushing total, he still scored offers from Ohio and Akron.

Rourke wasn’t the most efficient passer in the world, but over the course of about 10 non-sack rushes per game, his explosiveness (8.3 yards per carry) changed the complexion of Ohio’s offense. It helped to open up running lanes for Ouellette and backup Dorian Brown (combined: 23.5 carries per game, 48 percent success rate) and gave one of the MAC’s most run-heavy offense a potent combination of consistency and pop.

2017 Ohio offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Brown’s gone, but Rourke and Ouellette return, as do five linemen who combined for 46 of Ohio’s 65 starts up front last year. Anderson was first-team all-conference, left guard Joe Lowery was second-team, and 2016 starter Durrell Wood could return this fall after missing most of last year with back issues.

That should be more than enough, especially if backup backs like Julian Ross (239 rushing yards as a freshman) or Maleek Irons (439 yards in 2016) can do some damage.

If there’s a concern here, it’s injury. Ohio isn’t incredibly stocked at RB, and the running back corps was detonated by injuries as recently as 2016. Plus, Rourke himself rushed 121 times and took 16 sacks, and he took plenty of hits at Fort Scott as well. Quinton Maxwell, the initial 2017 starter, is still on the roster and was pretty close to Rourke’s equal as a passer, so maybe things don’t fall apart with a Rourke injury, but the upside would clearly get tamped down.

Ohio v Massachusetts
Nathan Rourke (12) and Joe Lowery (65)
Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

When the offense went on a skid, it was likely the passing game causing it. As a starter, Rourke produced just a slightly different stat line in wins and losses.

  • Rourke’s passing line in eight wins: 56% completion rate, 14.1 yards per completion, 8.5% TD rate, 1.7% INT rate, 146.5 passer rating
  • Rourke’s passing line in three losses: 49% completion rate, 13.0 yards per completion, 1.2% TD rate, 4.8% INT rate, 97.9 passer rating

Most importantly, Ohio couldn’t pass when it needed to pass — in all three losses, opponents dominated Rourke and the passing game on passing downs. Including sacks, he averaged just 3.6 yards per pass attempt against CMU, 0.7 against Akron (he was 2-for-6 for four yards and a pick), and 3.4 against Buffalo. Ohio ranked 24th in Standard Downs S&P+ but only 78th in Passing Downs S&P+.

In theory, continuity could help with that. Rourke was a first-time starter, and he was missing Ohio’s most dangerous weapon for most of his first month in the lineup.

Papi White missed four games early in Rourke’s tenure but exploded upon his return, catching 10 balls for 253 yards in the wins over Kent State, Miami, and Toledo. But Akron and Buffalo held him to 117 yards in 11 catches. That was evidently the key to shutting down Ohio on passing downs.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Ohio vs Troy
Papi White
Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

With White, senior Andrew Meyer, and sophomore Cameron Odom all returning, Rourke and his receiving corps could have a better feel for each other. The best possession man on the team, however — Brendan Cope (35 catches, plus-20 percent marginal efficiency) — is gone. That could open the door for junior Elijah Ball (who missed 2017 with an ACL injury) or a sophomore like Matt Seymour, Bryan Long Jr., or Keevon Harris, a former three-star recruit.

The upside for this unit is obvious, but the balance was tenuous last year, and it’s unlikely that Ohio will suddenly become a great passing downs offense. That puts a lot of pressure on you to stay on schedule, and while the Bobcats did it for most of 2017, the droughts were costly.

Defense

2017 Ohio defensive radar

The Ohio defense has had to carry some weight through the years. The Bobcats ranked better in Def. S&P+ than Off. S&P+ 11 times in 13 seasons between 2005-17, and the two times they didn’t (2011 and 2017), it meant the offense was stepping up, and Ohio was winning a lot of games.

Jimmy Burrow has been with Solich in Athens since 2005, and he’s found ways to get more aggressive in recent years — Ohio has ranked 40th or better in success rate in each of the last three seasons. The Bobcats were especially efficient against the run last year, finishing ninth in rushing success rate and 15th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line).

Eight players took part in at least six run stuffs each in 2017, but six of them are gone. Uh oh. The entire starting line departs, as do two of three starters at linebacker. Middle linebacker Quentin Poling (12.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, three forced fumbles) could be particularly hard to replace.

Depth and scheme were major Ohio strengths, though, so this doesn’t have to be a deadly level of turnover; seven returning linemen had at least one tackle for loss, as did four returning linebackers, and quite a few of these players have been playing for Burrow for a while. The new starters could easily replicate a lot of last year’s stats with starter reps.

That goes double for senior tackles Kent Berger and Andrew Payne (combined: 8.5 TFLs and five sacks as backups) and linebacker Evan Croutch. Sophomores like ends Will Evans and Austin Conrad and linebacker Dylan Conner got their feet wet last year, and players like JUCO tackles Zach Burks and Cole Baker and big redshirt freshmen Marcus Coleman and Kaleem Caesar could provide depth up front.

Ohio v Purdue
Eric Popp (34) and Will Evans (51)
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The secondary could pick up some slack, too. After a couple of years of inexperience, Ohio’s defensive backfield returns a junior (safety Javon Hagan) and three seniors (safeties Kylan Nelson and Tyler Gullett and corner Jalen Fox) to lead the way.

Fox defensed (picked off or broke up) 13 passes last year, and he should be able to take over for since-graduated Bradd Ellis as the No. 1 CB, and as long as one of a trio of sophomore cornerbacks — Marlin Brooks, Ilyaas Motley, or Jamal Hudson — is ready to step into the lineup, then at worst this unit will hold steady. Consider me particularly intrigued by Hudson, who had nearly as many passes defensed (four) as tackles (5.5) as a freshman.

Ohio v Toledo
Javon Hagan
Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Special Teams

Per Special Teams S&P+, Ohio has had a top-20 special teams unit for two straight years, and the Bobcats return all but one member of last year’s No. 14 unit.

Place-kicker Louie Zervos was 7-for-7 on field goals under 40 yards and a whopping 8-for-11 on longer FGs, punter Michael Farkas’ kicks were rarely returnable, and while Dorian Brown was a heck of a kick returner (25.5-yard average), Julian Ross was even better (31.0), and Kylan Nelson and Papi White are solid in punt returns. This should again be an excellent unit.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Howard NR 42.1 99%
15-Sep at Virginia 73 -1.6 46%
22-Sep at Cincinnati 88 1.6 54%
29-Sep Massachusetts 102 10.4 73%
6-Oct at Kent State 127 13.0 77%
13-Oct at Northern Illinois 69 -2.4 45%
20-Oct Bowling Green 97 9.0 70%
25-Oct Ball State 117 14.6 80%
1-Nov at Western Michigan 87 1.4 53%
7-Nov at Miami (Ohio) 82 -0.3 49%
14-Nov Buffalo 93 8.0 68%
23-Nov Akron 119 15.2 81%
Projected S&P+ Rk 68
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 47 / 88
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -3.3 (86)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 113 / 111
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / 3.9
2017 TO Luck/Game -3.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (75%, 54%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 9.0 (0.0)

Every year, I marvel at Solich’s consistency, and every year he earns more marveling. Ohio was a really hard job when he took it on, having produced two bowl bids in its history before he came to town. He’s brought the Bobcats to eight in the past nine years. He’s won four division titles and has now produced five seasons with nine or more wins.

And while the 2017 Bobcats managed to stumble into a what-if, they return play-makers on offense and products of depth on defense.

I can talk myself into Buffalo, Miami, or maybe Bowling Green having a chance to make a MAC East title run in 2018, but I know who’s starting with the best odds. And S&P+ agrees, giving the Bobcats at least a 45 percent chance of winning in all 12 games. Buffalo, BGSU, and Akron all have to visit Athens, and if the defense overachieves its No. 88 projection, a nine- or 10-win regular season — and, yes, a division title — are very much on the table.

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