Nathan Rourke throws a pass during Ohio Spring Practice on April 13, 2019. PHOTO: Ben Wielgopolski/WOUB

Ohio Football: ‘Cats Kick Off 2019 Against FCS Rhode Island

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ATHENS, OH — When the 2019 Bobcats take the field for the first time on Saturday afternoon, it won’t be with any new expectations and aspirations than they’ve had in recent years. 

Ohio was tabbed by both the media and the coaches as the favorites to not only win their division but to also win the Mid-American Conference Championship in December.

But that game is a long way off. 

Rhode Island, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team coming off of a 6-5 season in 2018, comes to Athens as the ‘Cats first test of the new season.

However, beating their FCS opponent last year was a test that Ohio barely passed, getting the best of Howard 38-32 and the way that game played out still resides in the minds of the Bobcats players and coaches.

“We’ve looked at that hard. Were we in great shape for the game? Did we work them too hard leading up to the game? Those are all questions that you ask yourself and you try to figure out because we did not have a great start to the season,” head coach Frank Solich said earlier this week.

We did study that, and I don’t know if there’s any one simple formula for making it work better, but we’re trying some things,” Solich added.

The Rams will bring as tough a challenge as the Bison did last season. Despite finishing just at 6-5 without a playoff bid, Rhode Island held their own in the tough Colonial Athletic Conference, a conference that saw six teams advance to the FCS playoffs.

“Rhode Island, I think they’re on the move. They had a winning record this past year, which is something they haven’t had with any kind of consistency in quite some time,” Solich said. “They have some All-Americans in the preseason; they certainly have all-conference players on both sides of the ball, so you’ve got to be ready to go against these guys.”

However, despite returning a talented roster, the Rams lost their quarterback to graduation this past spring and have held a competition this fall to name a new starter. A competition that, according to reports, has yet to be resolved. 

But that isn’t preventing the Bobcat defense from taking their opponent seriously.

“In one sense, Rhode Island is an FCS team, but they’ve got really good skill. We’ve really been focusing on that,” defensive coordinator Ron Collins said. “We’ve got some new pieces to the puzzle, so we’ve got to make sure they’re ready to roll. We want to make sure that when we come out Saturday that we’re playing fast.”

Heading into the season, it’s the offense that has more questions surrounding it than the defense. 

All-MAC quarterback Nathan Rourke is back, but he watched his five of his biggest weapons and three offensive linemen graduate back in May, but offensive coordinator Tim Albin sees a lot of potential in the Bobcats taking over in those roles.

“I think the guys have had a really good camp. We put a lot on them,” Albin said. “There’s a standard that’s been set the last couple years and that’s our expectation and we’re not going to shy away from it.”

“Nathan and the O-Line guys have taken it to another level. I didn’t think last year’s group could be topped as far as the preparation and the hard work they did in the off-season, but by-golly they got it done,” Albin added.

Rourke struggled enough in last season’s opener to be benched in favor of Quinton Maxwell, so a strong start from the senior quarterback would be a welcomed sight for those in attendance at Peden Stadium on Saturday.

“We had a lot of mistakes in our opener last season that we had to iron out. I think we were able to get that out of our system (in fall camp),” Rourke said. “Now we’re looking forward to going out there and playing our best.”

“I think last year at the first game, we substituted for him to get him to the sideline and let him settle down,” Solich said of Rourke. “He’s always pushing himself, and I think he’ll get off to a great start.”

The potential for the Bobcats to have a historic season in 2019 is there. If the predictions prove to be true, it would be the first MAC Championship for Ohio since 1968. 

But the Bobcats have to take it one game at a time.

The first of those kicks off at 2 p.m. on Saturday.