EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third installment in a 12-part series previewing Marshall University’s 2019 football opponents.
HUNTINGTON — As the Ohio Bobcats look toward the 2019 season, it will be a year in which the dynamic will change a bit under head coach Frank Solich.
The Bobcats are coming off a year in which they put up some program-record numbers, but turnover after that season shifts the dynamic from offense to defense.
That’s just fine for the veteran Solich, who has put together 34 wins in the last four seasons — in the upper echelon of Group of Five schools.
Offensively, Ohio put up more than 40 points a game and neared 470 yards per game in 2018.
While many of the skill players and offensive linemen are gone from that team, the Bobcats do have the benefit of returning senior quarterback Nathan Rourke, who will be a dual-threat within the offense.
For Rourke, things will be a different feel in 2019 as he takes over as the full-time quarterback, instead of splitting duties with Quinton Maxwell, who transferred out of the program.
Rourke also has to find more weapons to throw to with the exit of leading receivers Papi White and Andrew Meyer. Rourke does return Cameron Odom (30 receptions, 418 yards, three TDs) and Isiah Cox, along with Ryan Luehrman.
The biggest key to the offense will be finding a replacement for bulldozing running back A.J. Ouellette and his 1,300 yards and 12 scores. Sophomore Julian Ross is the only back with extensive experience, so youth will be served at the position.
In addition to the losses at skill spots, the offensive line will need revamped a bit, but there are two returning starters in junior Brett Kittrell and senior Austen Pleasants, a Coal Grove, Ohio, native who will be a leader along the front.
As the offense finds itself early in the season, the defense will be called on to step up its production, which shouldn’t be an issue with seven starters returning.
In 2018, Ohio was solid against the run — as evidenced in the Bobcats’ shutdown of San Diego State in the 27-0 Frisco Bowl win — and the secondary brings back talent and experience that could make the Bobcats a top-tier defensive team.
Safety Javon Hagan leads that returning secondary and returns after a year in which he had 78 tackles and two interceptions. Joining him as top players in the secondary are cornerbacks Marlin Brooks and Jamal Hudson.
The loss of Evan Croutch is big to the linebacker corps, but the return of Jared Dorsa is a benefit for the longevity of the defense. Dorsa was third on the team in tackles and will lead a group that lacks starting experience, but not game experience.
Up front, defensive end Amos Ogun-Semore could be an emerging star as only a sophomore and is joined by Will Evans to bookend the front, but getting to the pressure was an issue, which allowed the passing attack of the opposition to see success as routes developed. In turn, that also led to a high third-down conversion rate for opponents, which kept the defense on the field way longer than it should have.
Placekicker Louie Zervos could also be a big weapon after a year in which he converted 13 of 17 field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards.
As has been the case with Solich teams, there aren’t many mistakes made. The Bobcats won’t beat themselves with penalties and they can be expected to win the turnover battle.
Those are major reasons that the Bobcats have won nine games in each of the last two seasons and eight games each in the two years prior to that.
Don’t look for that to change, but there is a tough four-game stretch that features road games at Pittsburgh and Marshall, followed by home games against Louisiana — a Sun Belt Championship participant — and Buffalo, the Mid-American Conference East Division champion last season.
That stretch will be pivotal to maintain the current level of success and that game against Buffalo — even though it’s the MAC opener — will go a long way toward a conference title run for the Bobcats.