Blake Nissen

Taking back the MAC


Football: Taking back the Mid-American Conference — Ohio season preview

Spencer Holbrook / Sports Editor | Pete Nakos / Asst. Sports Editor

For Frank Solich and Ohio, getting there will be more challenging than staying here.

The Bobcats sure got here quickly. Entering his 14th season as the coach in Athens, Solich established a pattern of consistency early on. The Bobcats have had nine seasons with seven or more wins, including each of the last three.

Consistency is great — but winning championships is always the end goal.

“What we would like to do is win a MAC Championship for everybody involved. For the families, for the fans, administration, everyone associated with Ohio, and obviously the players.”Frank Solich

The Mid-American Conference Championship has somehow always eluded Solich. It’s been within his reach four times, and he’s been as close as any coach who hasn’t won it. His Bobcats lost to Central Michigan in 2006 and 2009. They blew a second-half lead to Northern Illinois in 2011. They had the ball down six points in the fourth quarter with a chance to upset undefeated Western Michigan in 2016, but they lost.

Solich is aware of the drought. It’s hard not to be. But he makes sure not to let that define him or his program.

“I don't have to win a MAC Championship to feel like I'm a good coach,” Solich said. “I know that's the case. I don't need a MAC Championship to know that these guys are good coaches. I know that. What we would like to do is win a MAC Championship for everybody involved. For the families, for the fans, administration, everyone associated with Ohio, and obviously the players. We're wanting that to happen as much as anything.”

This season, that desire — a void that is missing from Solich's otherwise impressive résumé — could become a reality. That reality is possible because of the recent success of the Bobcats’ offense, specifically quarterback Nathan Rourke.

Rourke’s name has shown up on various preseason watch lists: the Manning Award, the Maxwell Award, the Davey O’Brien Award. He’s garnered national attention from every outlet and commentator that has something to say about the MAC.

Last season was just a start, or so Solich hopes. Rourke set the program’s single-season record with 39 total touchdowns and 132 points scored.

“Happy game week, Nate,” a reporter asked recently. “Are you ready?”

“We’re in trouble if I’m not ready, right?” Rourke said.

Biggest on-field question

To put it in simply, the biggest question facing Ohio is the front seven.

A season removed from leading the MAC and finishing 10th in the nation in rush defense, the front seven that led that charge returns just one starter: linebacker Evan Croutch.


Blake Nissen | FILE

Quarterback Nathan Rourke carries the football down field during Ohio's game against Kent State on Oct. 21.

He’ll have to help fill the void of a vocal linebacker core that included Chad Moore and Miami Dolphins draftee Quentin Poling. Croutch isn’t concerned about the want to stop the run first. It’s what brings together the Bobcats on defense.

Poling was the middle linebacker last season, but Croutch will take over a large portion of the quarterbacking duties in the front seven — even though he’ll play weak-side linebacker Saturday. He expects his teammates to help him out, but he wasn’t elected a captain for no reason.

“A lot that I learned from those guys was playing smart football,” Croutch said. “It’s what they do and did. They really understood what was going on, and what was going to come. That’s what I’m going to bring to the field.”

Final assessment

Offensive coordinator Tim Albin has been telling Rourke all week, “You can’t win the MAC this week.”

And it’s true.

Ohio opens the season against Howard, and then it’ll play three more non-conference games before diving into MAC play. The Bobcats were dealt a Week 2 bye, so they’ll string together 11 straight game weeks after that.

The season might come down to a war of attrition. If that’s the case, a healthy Ohio has the best chance to win the MAC. If the Bobcats run into injuries, though, it’s tough to see them in good position come November and December.

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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