Louisville Game First Step In Long Climb For ‘Cats

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After a nearly nine-month layoff, the Ohio football program resumes its climb towards the summit of success when it kicks off its season Sunday on the road against the ninth-ranked Louisville Cardinals. Over the past four seasons the Bobcats have inched ever closer to the peak in an attempt to plant their flag at the top of the Mid-American Conference, but have finished just shy.

Ohio is coming off of a 9-4 season that was full of highs, but featured some bumps along the road. It’s not that 2012 marked a failure for the Bobcats, but after starting the season 7-0, Ohio slipped, losing four of its last five regular season games, and missing out on the MAC Championship they’ve long searched for. Now the Bobcats enter a new season with many of their goals still left unattained.

“It’s our last year and we definitely want to get it done,” redshirt senior running back Beau Blankenship said at Ohio’s media day in early August.  “I feel like we have to get it done. We have the pressure to do it.”

With the nation’s eyes on them – the game is one of just two college football games being played Sunday, and the only one on ESPN – the ‘Cats are attempting to resume that climb with a huge opening challenge. Add to that the preseason hype Ohio is receiving as a favorite to win the MAC East, and that many of the main components of the team’s recent success are entering their final season, and it leaves a lot of weight on the team’s shoulders.

In the 120 years since Ohio fielded its first football team, it has never beaten an opponent ranked in the Top 25. Now, it is searching for that first victory against a ranked opponent with one of the nation’s best teams.

“This may be the most complete football team we’ve played since I’ve been here,” head coach Frank Solich said Tuesday at his weekly press conference.

He’s not exaggerating either.

Louisville features one of the country’s best offenses, led by a Heisman front-runner in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The junior is coming off of a season in which he threw for 3,718 yards, 27 touchdowns, and led the Cardinals to a win over then No. 3 Florida in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. If that wasn’t enough, his three top targets from a season ago, all return for 2013, making for an intimidating aerial attack. Then, there’s also a pair of Doak Walker Award Watch List members, and 2011 BCS National Championship MVP Michael Dyer (he transferred to Louisville earlier this summer after a year away from college football) in the backfield. The Bobcats defense is facing a huge challenge, one that it will need to conquer on all fronts.

“Louisville is an explosive offense. We know that … They have dynamic players,” said cornerbacks coach James Ward. “Our biggest challenge is focusing on ourselves and being the best that we can be … We have to operate as a team. We have to have 11 on the run, and 11 on the pass.”

While Ohio’s offense may not be as nationally-renowned, the ‘Cats do bring back third-year starter Tyler Tettleton at quarterback, along with redshirt senior receiver Donte Foster, and Blankenship to carry the ball.

But, Louisville returns all but one starter from a defensive unit that finished 23rd in the nation in total defense last season. In order to pull off the upset over a team that is favored by three touchdowns, the Bobcats will need secondary players such as running back Ryan Boykin, and offensive weapon Daz’ Patterson to step up as well.

For the past few seasons the senior class has been building up Ohio’s program, carrying the team up the college football mountainside one step at a time. Some members of the team feel in order to regain their footing after a slip in 2012, and eventually reach the elusive peak that has remained just out of reach, the ‘Cats must announce to the world that they’ve learned from their setbacks and are more motivated than ever before. A strong performance against the Cardinals could be just the statement they’re looking for.

“We’re ready to show what we can do,” said senior defensive end Nic Barber. “I guess our message is, get ready, because we’re coming at you.”

Kickoff of Ohio’s matchup with Louisville is scheduled for 3:30 p.m.