Saturday, Sept. 6, Noon
Ohio Stadium (102,329)
2007 Record: 6-6, 4-4 Mid-American Conference
Head Coach: Frank Solich, 19-19 at Ohio (fourth season)
Give Frank Solich credit for the understatement of the year at the Mid-American Conference media days in early August.
"We have a very demanding schedule this year, there's no doubt about it," Solich said.
So far, so good.
"We understand the challenge that lies ahead, now it's just a matter of responding. We've got a tough opener at Wyoming against a team that doesn't lose many games at home, and it certainly doesn't get much easier from that point on."
Yes, it does take a step up at that point. And no, he's not necessarily talking about Northwestern.
The second game – after what turned out to be a season-opening 21-20 loss to Wyoming last week that the Bobcats very well could have won – is Saturday's clash at noon on ESPN with No. 3 Ohio State, the state's big brother who has not lost to a fellow Buckeye State squad since 1921.
After that, the Bobcats do have to face MAC favorite Central Michigan to open the home slate before a trip to Evanston to take on Northwestern, but there's no denying the toughest game of the year for OU will more than likely come Saturday.
Even if it's not the most important.
"It's a big game for sure, it's a great opportunity, but in the grand scheme of things it's not high up there," tight end Andrew Mooney said before the season. "As upperclassmen it's been our responsibility to make guys realize the first game of the year is Wyoming, and the first real big game that matters to us is Central Michigan."
After all, that game with the Chippewas is Ohio's first chance to make an impact in the MAC. The Bobcats will be hoping to return to their 2006 level when they won the league's Eastern Division and ended up going to the GMAC Bowl before losing to Southern Mississippi. That was Ohio's first bowl game since 1968 – a true bellwether year for college football programs in the state, it would seem.
The Bobcat coaching staff feels it has the talent to get back into the postseason picture. Solich certainly knows how to coach, having compiled a successful career at Nebraska before moving to Athens, and the squad has been seeing an increase in talent during the past few campaigns.
"I think we have probably the most athletic team we've had here since I came," Solich said. "But we've got a very challenging schedule and, with that in mind, we have a number of road games. If we can get through the early part of the schedule and keep a great frame of mind, we can be a good football team."
Even with that athleticism, Ohio was picked to finish sixth in the Eastern Division in the league. Probably the biggest reason for that comes in the rushing game.
Last year, the Bobcats could just lean on Kalvin McRae, and "Big Play" did not disappoint. By the time the 2007 season ended, McRae had carried the ball 294 times, an average of 24.5 rushes per game, for 1,434 yards and 19 touchdowns.
"I didn't really have to do a whole lot last year, just make sure he knew what time the bus left and that he was ready to go," running backs coach Tim Albin joked before the season. "That said, we really have four exciting guys that are battling for that position in camp. Competition makes you better and those guys have come out each and every day with their chin straps buckled up ready to go. It will be interesting to see how it plays out."
Albin, then, would not be pleased based on the team's first week. Against Wyoming, Bobcat tailbacks ran the ball 15 times for a total of just 41 yards, led by Chris Garrett's 30 yards on 12 tries. Garrett is the leading returning OU rusher from a year ago with 99 yards.
On the other hand, the Bobcat run stopping could still use some work. A year after being gashed for more than 230 yards on the ground five times, the squad gave up 160 to Wyoming, which struggled through the air.
Even with those daunting stats against the Bobcats, they reported to camp not lacking in belief.
"The biggest thing I've seen this offseason is that the team is starting to believe that we can win any game we play," defensive lineman Jameson Hartke said. "I feel like we may have questioned that in the past, but that's no longer the case."
Bobcat Players To Know
QB Theo Scott: Scott split time with Brad Bower last year but is the No. 1 option under center for the Bobcats, even with highly touted JUCO transfer Boo Jackson getting some time in the first week. Scott, a junior, received the lion's share of the time in the opener, completing 26 of 35 passes for 224 yards, a touchdown and a late interception.
Those numbers were improvements upon his first season in Athens last year when he completed 63 of 109 passes for 743 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions and running for 120 yards on 40 carries in 10 games. A dual-threat quarterback, Scott started three of the final four games.
"He's a big-play athlete," Solich said. "He's got the speed and the passing arm to make big plays on the ground and in the air. He's really picking up what we're doing offensively. I think he's reading coverages better, he's understanding the blitzing game. The whole package is starting to fit for him."
TE Andrew Mooney: Talk about a guy with a nose for the end zone. Among Mooney's 34 catches for 498 yards last year were nine touchdown grabs. Last week, he caught just three passes for 10 yards, but one was a 4-yard touchdown.
"He's a talented player," Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman said. "He's a good pass blocker, a good run blocker. They like to work him into their offense and get him the ball. He's a talented player and a guy we're going to have to know where he is at all times."
The 6-3, 233-pound New Mexico State transfer was a second-team All-MAC pick last season after earning second-team Sun Belt Conference honors in 2004 at NMSU.
DE Jameson Hartke: A senior from Centerville who earned first-team all-state honors his final year as an Elk, the 6-4, 262-pound Hartke has contributed each of his first three years, culminating with a 51-tackle, two-sack, one-interception campaign last year. Hartke is listed as an end but can slide down and play as a tackle in certain situations.
S Michael Mitchell: At 6-1, 217 pounds, Mitchell boasts a body to come up and make some plays in the run game, and he's part of a secondary that has had some success against the pass during the past couple of years. He had eight tackles in the opener after finishing 2007 with 74 stops, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Series Top Returnees
Ohio State has not played OU since 1999. The Buckeyes have a 5-0 lead in the all-time series, having won the first four games – in from 1899-1902 – by shutout and defeating the Bobcats 40-16 in 1999 in a game that was tied at 10 at the half.
When Ohio State has the ball: Buckeye players and coaches alike talked this past week about how much Chris Wells wanted to face Ohio just because of how much he hates missing any time on the field. A look at the stat sheet probably played in that, too, for Wells.
Ohio has struggled against the run the past few campaigns. Nine of 12 opponents last year topped 150 yards – the lone BCS foe on the schedule, Virginia Tech, ran for 181 – and the Bobcats gave up 4.5 yards per rush.
With that in mind and Beanie now out, it will be interesting to see how the Buckeyes can move the ball on the ground with Boom Herron, Maurice Wells and Brandon Saine getting the carries. Running backs coach Dick Tressel said he'd like each to get 12-15 touches on a series-by-series basis to get each into the game sufficiently.
But looking back at the last time Ohio State lost its bell cow at tailback – the 2002-03 saga with Maurice Clarett – it's a lesson to remember how much the team struggled to run the ball (and what a chore blocking became) with the No. 1 rusher on the sideline. This current stable of backs has more talent than the backup crew of that time, but it will be fun to watch how the offensive line deals with Beanie not being in the game at any time.
The X-factor, in that regard, is Terrelle Pryor, who adds another dimension to the rushing attack by bringing the option into play. It's hard not to expect him to be able to move the ball in a similar fashion as he did against Youngstown State, and that can help open up lanes for the other backs as well.
When it comes to the passing game, expect an aggressive scheme from the Bobcat defense, which likes to play some man coverage and go after the quarterback. Last year, it worked. The squad had the second-best passing efficiency defense in the league and 16 different players accumulated sacks as the team had the third-most of those in the MAC.
In other words, it could be feast or famine through the air for Ohio State. If the line does its job and some of those blitzes get picked up, big plays should result for a Buckeye passing game featuring the likes of Brian Hartline, Brian Robiskie, Ray Small and DeVier Posey as downfield threats. If the pressure gets to Todd Boeckman – who threw two interceptions during week two last season – then sacks or interceptions could result.
When Ohio has the ball: Solich is known as a coach who likes to run the ball, a reputation built during his years at Nebraska where he ran the school's traditional option attack and continued last year when McRae was the No. 1 threat on the team's offense. That much was thrown out of the window last week against Wyoming when the squad threw 41 passes and ran 21 times.
"That's kind of what we're going to be about this year," Solich said. "But we still have to work on the running game."
That running game didn't get much done against Wyoming, and getting that into gear against a traditional run-stuffing school in Ohio State will be easier said than done. If Garrett, a junior, can't get into gear, expect to see some time from junior L.J. Flintall, sophomore Vince Davidson and fast redshirt freshman Donte Harden.
The Bobcats will have to make their hay through air and Scott, a transfer from Cal who has excellent speed and can run but who is also an efficient passer. His protection is veteran, with three seniors and three juniors comprising the team's top six linemen.
"To me, they are good up front," OSU linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. "They look like they are solid and they secure the line of scrimmage. They're good offensive line-wise."
Out wide, there is talent, led by Hilliard native Taylor Price, who caught a school-record 14 passes for 139 yards last week against the Cowboys. And then there's Mooney, who will be a threat if the Bobcats get into the red zone.
"I think whatever defense you're in, whoever is going to have him or knows he's coming into the zone is going to have to know where he's at and what he's going to be doing," Freeman said.
With Donald Washington and Jamario O'Neal still out because of suspension and Kurt Coleman perhaps limited by his injury, the Buckeyes have a tough task in front of them when it comes to stopping Ohio's passing game, but it still should be done with enough success to keep the Bobcats at 14 points or below.