Ohio Bobcats open at home vs. Howard on Saturday

ATHENS — One of the top football teams in the Mid-American Conference isn’t about to overlook FCS opponent Howard in Saturday’s season opener at Peden Stadium.

“We’re excited about getting the year going,” said Ohio Bobcats head coach Frank Solich. “I saw a team that was coming off of a season that had a lot of enthusiasm going into its conditioning program. That carried on into the fall camp and now the start of the season. We will be playing an energized Howard football team and one that’s got a fair number of starters coming back.”

Ohio hosts the the Bison at 2 p.m. Saturday in Athens. Howard finished last season 7-4 and second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. This season, the Bison should battle North Carolina A&T and Bethune-Cookman for the top spot.

“You look at our first opponent, Howard, and what I see is a team that won five out of their last six games, and the game they lost was by three points,” Solich said. “They played Kent State the second game, and that was a one-touchdown win for Kent State. They beat UNLV at UNLV.”

While Solich is praising his opponent — something you can expect every week — the Bobcats feature one of the MAC’s top offenses. Ohio averaged 39.1 points per game and 433.1 yards per game in 2017 because of the Bobcats extremely-talented skill players.

Senior back A.J. Ouellette rushed for 1,006 yards last year on 192 rushes. He also scored seven touchdowns. Julian Ross, who is one of the fastest Bobcats, rushed for 250 yards and three scores as a freshman, while Maleek Irons gained 439 yards on 95 carries in 2016.

It may be junior quarterback Nathan Rourke who is Ohio’s most dangerous offensive player though. Rourke averaged 6.7 yards per carry while amassing 912 yards and a school-record 21 touchdowns on 137 carries.

Rourke is also a passing threat and enters the season on the O’Brien Award and Maxwell Award watch lists. He threw for more than 2,200 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 55.1 percent of his passes.

“He’s decisive, and I thought he was good at that last year, but he really knows the offense. Now, if he’s not throwing a perfect pass, it’s bothersome to him,” Solich said. “His competitiveness has always been there. But he can run, and we’re going to have certain situations where he does run. Where we need to get better is in our passing game.”

Ohio’s receiving corps is going to be tough to stop, even with the loss of redshirt junior Elijah Ball for the season. Papi White showed everyone he is a threat in nine games last season with 36 catches for 631 yards. He averaged 70.1 yards per game and 17.5 yards per reception. The other senior receiver is Andrew Meyer, who had 35 receptions for 483 yards and two touchdowns.

Solich is excited to see the offense come together this season.

“We know what we want to be about, and we know what we’re capable of being,” he said. “We really want to run the football, but we want to throw the football. We kind of want it all. We want to make sure we’re really good at both. Some teams are more vulnerable to be run against and some teams are more vulnerable to being thrown against. I want to have the kind of football team that can take advantage of the defense.”

Solich is impressed with Howard’s sophomore quarterback Caylin Newton, who is on the FCS National Player of the Year watch list.

Last season, Newton became the first freshman in MEAC history to surpass 3,000 yards of total offense (3,185) while averaging 289.5 yards of offense per outing. The younger brother of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton led the league in scoring as he combined for 25 touchdowns while guiding Howard to its best finish and record since 2012.

“Newton is a very good running quarterback and is developing his throwing skills. You could see it as the year went on, and he has had a year to work on that,” Solich said. “So I’m sure he’ll be a very good, complete quarterback. They have an offense that is a little unique.”

Howard likes to put two running backs to the same side as the quarterback that’s off the ball.

“That really allows them to do a lot of things: release two guys to the same side on pass routes if they want, give them max protection in terms of pass and blocking and give them a running game inside as well as a quick pitch outside game,” Solich said. “They can pitch it or the quarterback will keep it, and him being a good running quarterback, they have both of those options. It can give you a bit of a wishbone effect if you want it to.”

Newton likes to throw it to All-MEAC receivers Kyle Anthony and Jequez Ezzard. Anthony led the Bison with 40 receptions for 764 yards and five touchdowns last season, while Ezzard had 34 catches for 895 yards and six touchdowns. Howard has added more weapons for Newton with the additions of wide receivers A’Jae Boyd and Tayshaun Porter.

Last season, the Bison averaged nearly 30 points per game and had the league’s top balanced offense. Howard led the conference in rushing (215.5 yards per game) and finished second in air behind reigning MEAC champions North Carolina A&T State (230.5 yards per game).

“We’re looking to take advantage with our talented wide receivers and quarterback,” said Howard coach Mike London. “Offensively, we realize that their skill sets allow us to be successful.”

Defensively, Howard runs a 3-4 and the Bison like to blitz.

“They will move their people an awful lot,” Solich said. “They got about half their defense coming back in terms of starters, so it’ll be a fairly-experienced defensive team.”

Howard returns seven starters on defense, including All-MEAC defensive back Bryan Cook.

“We’re looking to improve our performance in different areas,” London said. “We’re looking to improve our football IQ and reduce penalties. With young guys developing, we want them to show progress as we continue to build the program.”