The ‘Cats enter a pivotal year as they continue to rebuild post-Solich era, with three opponents who are also looking at rebuilds of their own.
The Ohio Bobcats are an interesting squad. They went 3-9 last season, swapping back and forth between quarterbacks and turning in a number of strange performances which saw them play their way out of more games than their talent indicate they should.
The transition from Frank Solich’s leadership to that of Tim Albin, his former right-hand man, took a little bump in 2021, but hopes are high in 2022 that the Bobcats can at the very least, right the ship and compete for a bowl bid, something the ‘Cats have traditionally competed for since the early 2000’s.
This season’s out-of-conference slate provides some very interesting challenges for a team which struggled with consistency in 2021; mostly because all of their future opponents found themselves in similar fates last season as well.
It sets up for a potentially intriguing non-conference schedule, and if the Bobcats can claw their way to a decent result coming out of it, they could absolutely make noise in a wide-open MAC East.
We preview the teams they’ll be facing below:
Saturday, Sept. 3: Ohio vs. Florida Atlantic Owls
The Florida Atlantic Owls enter a pivotal year for the program, as head coach Willie Taggart enters his third season as FAU head man. The Owls finished 5-7 (3-5 Conference USA) in 2021, a regression from their 5-4 mark the previous season. In an effort to make the team better, Taggart rotated his coaching staff, bringing in Brent Dearmon, previously of MTSU and Kansas as offensive coordinator and former USC defensive coordinator Todd Orlando to the same position at FAU.
The Owls are on a four-game losing streak after starting 5-3 in 2021, looking fairly listless in the back half of the schedule as they do so. They’ll look to get on the right foot against Ohio to start the season.
Former Miami [FL] QB N’Kosi Perry is the unquestioned starter after winning the job in the 2021, throwing for 2,771 yards, 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions while also rushing for four touchdowns. The passing offense was alright in 2021, ranked 55th in the FBS with 248.7 yards per game.
Je’Quan Burton (27 receptions, 447 yards,. three touchdowns) and LaJohntay Wester (65 rec., 702 yards, four touchdowns) return as leading receivers, while tight end Austin Evans should get a lot of reps at the tight end spot, as Perry showed a propensity for throwing to possession targets underneath in 2021.
A pair of transfers should shoulder the load for FAU in the running game, which was in the top half of the C-USA in 2021 with 151.3 yards per game on the ground last season. Nebraska transfer Marvin Scott III (41 attempts for 128 yards, two touchdowns in two seasons) the favorite to occupy the lead back role. USF transfer Johnny Ford (team-leading 831 yards on 131 attempts for five touchdowns) was the lead back in 2021, but starts behind the eight-ball after missing all of the offseason and spring camps due to being declared academically ineligible.
Most of the line returns intact, with the entire right side returning to start, while Rutgers transfer Brendan Bordner will anchor the left side. They hope to improve from giving up 35 sacks like they did last year.
Defensively, this is a unit which relies on speed and schematic deception to find success— and it worked to a certain extent, as they had a +4 turnover margin in 2021, ranking 39th in the FBS. But otherwise, this was an average-at-best unit in per-game totals, finishing with 409.2 total offensive yards allowed per game, 90th of 129 teams.
The multiple-look defense returns five starters from 2021, including strong safety Teja Young, who leads Owl returners in both tackles (59) and interceptions (three), and sack leader Jaylen Joyner (three sacks in 2021, with 36 total tackles.)
The linebackers and defensive ends often go back and forth in the hybrid system, with safeties also occasionally dropping into the box, giving FAU multiple angles of attack.
Chris Jones (29 total tackles in 2021) and Tennessee transfer Morven Joseph project at outside linebacker— but will often see time at defensive end in most packages. Eddie Jones (44 total tackles, five tackles-for-loss) will patrol at the inside backer spot. Joyner and Decarius Hawthorne (18 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, .5 sacks) return at the end spots, with Hawthorne taking over as a full-time starter. All-Conference USA Honorable Mention defensive tackle Evan Anderson (42 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, one sack) will anchor the middle of the defensive line, and his six-foot-three, 356. lb. frame will have to be accounted for.
Young is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield, with three underclassmen set to occupy the other four sports on a passing defense which was one of the worst in the country in 2021, finishing ranked 104th with 252.2 yards per game.
The Owls are gearing up for a move to the American Athletic Conference after the 2022 season, and they’ll want to make an impression by running through C-USA on their way out. They’re a talented side held back by inconsistencies on-field and in the coaching staff.
Ohio will have their work cut out for them, as FAU has a decided talent advantage at this time, even despite being at a relatively equal peer level.
Saturday, Sept. 10: Ohio at Penn State Nittany Lions
(Editor’s note: This section is borrowed from Central Michigan’s preview, as they also play Penn State in the 2022 season.)
Penn State had a down year by their standards in 2021, struggling to maintain momentum en route to a 7-6 season, compiling a 4-5 conference record in the Big Ten.
It was, by all counts, a season to forget in Happy Valley, as the Nittany Lions lost six of their last eight games after starting the 2021 season 5-0. A combination of injuries and inconsistent play, especially on the offensive side, contributed to the downfall, as PSU only scored above 18 points twice after their 24-0 victory over Indiana on Oct. 2.
They lose gamechanging receiver Jahan Dotson, who went 16th overall to Washington in the NFL Draft, as well as depth contributors on defense in safety Jaquan Brisker (selected by Chicago in ‘22 NFL Draft) and edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie (selected by Atlanta in ‘22 NFL Draft.) They will be tough holes to fill for a team in transition.
But Penn State can at least be assured several important returnees, even despite the exodus of talent. Sean Clifford is projeted to take the reins once again as the starter after going 261-of-428 for 3,107 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions through the air in 2021. Clifford’s durability, however, is an issue, which means Christian Veilleux (16-of-26 for 238 yards, three touchdowns) could also see time at QB in key situations.
Whether it’s Clifford or Veilleux under center, they will have four excellent receivers returning to the fold, including Parker Washington, who finished second to Dotson in receptions (64), yards (820) and touchdowns (4) in 2021.
The trenches are fairly firm on both sides, with three starters returning on both the offensive and defensive lines.
Manny Diaz, newly-christened defensive coordinator after several seasons as Miami [FL]’s head coach, will have some intriguing pieces to play with on defense, as they were a top-five defense in the Big Ten in every category, save rushing yards allowed per game (where they finished 10th in-conference.) The defensive backfield is especially dangerous, with playmaking back Ji’ayir Brown and his six interceptions from last season returning to play center field, while Joey Porter Jr. retains his spot as an outside corner.
If there are weak spots to address, it’s the running game on offense, where the Nittany Lions uncharacteristically had zero running backs with a 100-yard game in 2021. They were 118th in the country in rushing with 107.8 yards per game as a unit last year, and have worked to address the issue in the offseason, with incumbent starter Keyvone Lee expected to be pushed by a platoon of promising freshmen backs, led by true freshman Nick Singleton.
Linebacker will also be an issue, as only one starter returns from last year’s defense, forcing Diaz and head coach James Franklin to convert several of their safeties into outside backers this offseason.
The specialists are also in flux, as all four major positions will be in battles, as former kicker/punter Jordan Stout graduated and former kick/punt returner Dotson left for the NFL. We won’t know what the situation there will look like until the season kicks off.
Ohio isn’t quite in a position to pull off an upset against a team of Penn State’s caliber yet, but with how uncertain the PSU program is at current, there can be opportunities to prove some points about their development if they take advantage.
Saturday Sept. 17: Ohio at Iowa State Cyclones
The Iowa State Cylcones program Ohio will face in 2022 is one which will look a tad bit different, with several losses on offense which will impact their immediate talent level.
Former Toledo head coach Matt Campbell will have his work cut out for him from a coaching standpoint, as he enters his seventh season at Iowa State with perhaps the biggest pivot point since his initial hire. After a huge upward trajectory which saw Iowa State push for power player status in the Big 12 in 2020, the Cyclones crashed back to reality, finishing 7-6, including 5-4 in-conference.
The Cyclones finished the second half of the season at 2-4, with all four losses by one possession or less, and both wins in blowout fashion. (Perhaps coincidentally, both wins were at home, while all four losses were away from Jack Trice Stadium.)
That sort of backward momentum, combined with several heavy leadership losses, will test Campbell’s ability to pull people together.
Brock Purdy no longer leads at quarterback, after getting selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2022 NFL Draft. In comes Hunter Dekkers, who has backed up Purdy for the last three seasons. The six-foot-three, 256 lb. homestate hero brings dual-threat versatility to the position. The Iowa State staff believed in him so whole-heartedly, they did not shop the transfer market, which will be an interesting development to watch.
The entire offensive line returns except at left tackle, but that doesn’t fill anyone in Ames with confidence, as the unit struggled to protect the backfield, finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (seventh, with 160.1 yards.) Those struggles were apparent in the advanced stats, as the Cyclones ranked 76th in points per quality possession (4.58.)
Breece Hall is also no longer on the roster (selected by the New York Jets in ‘22 NFL Draft) after putting up Heisman-worthy performances throughout his career in Ames. The current projected starter is Jirehl Brock, a six-foot- 215 lb. back who came to Iowa State as a higher-ranked prospect than Hall. He’ll fight freshman Eli Sanders for the starting role in camps.
Iowa State also loses a lot of talent at the receiver and tight end positions, with only one returning starter amongst the receivers and one returning starter at tight end (Iowa State often runs two tight-end formations.)
Xavier Hutchinson (83 rec., 987 yards, five touchdowns) returns to his starting outside receiver role, while Jaylin Noel (38 rec., 265 yards) third-leading receiver in 2021, will occupy the opposite spot. Charlie Kolar would be difficult to replace on his own, but Chase Allen also left with him in 2021, forcing senior Jared Rus and junior Easton Dean into service at tight end. Receiving options all over the board will be hard to parse until they hit the field.
While the offense tries to navigate several pitfalls, the defense should be strong once again from a talent standpoint, as the unit ranked in the Top 20 in every major category in 2021 , including an impressive ninth in the country in total defense, with just 310.7 yards allowed per game. They kept the Cyclones in many contests in 2021, limiting the big play especially well, with only 43 plays of 20+ yards over 13 games last season.
All-American Will McDonald IV returns at the defensive edge after a season which saw him pick up 11.5 sacks to lead the Cylcones in 2021. Isaiah Lee (21 total tackles, 5.5 tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks) and former four-star recruit Blake Peterson project to line up alongside McDonald on the defensive line in the 3-3-5 look.
Mike Rose, the 2020 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, is a big loss in the middle of the defense, as his team-leading 12 tackles-for-loss will certainly be missed. O’Rien Vance returns to take Rose’s place after suffering a major injury in 2021, and should help steady the defense as a senior contributor. Former Delaware Blue Hen Colby Reeder transfers in to fill the STAR linebacker role, giving the Cyclones an FCS All-American presence in the midfield. There will be a battle for the WILL spot in camps, with Gerry Vaughn, Hunter Zenzen and Jacob Ellis looking to get on the field.
The defensive backfield will be in a total rebuild, with no returning starters after two expected contributors transferred out in the offseason. Former corner Anthony Johnson Jr. returns, but will start at safety, making way for a handful of promising prospects in Myles Purchase and TJ Tampa to occupy the starting roles.
Ohio is themselves in the midst of a sea of change, still a handful of years removed from the retirement of Frank Solich. It will be a tough task to try and crack Iowa State’s defense, even with all the changes. But it has to be said: Iowa State traditionally struggles with lower-level opponents at points. If Ohio game plans well, anything is possible.
Saturday, Sept. 24: Ohio vs. Fordham Rams
The Fordham Rams, the alma mater of one Tony Reali of ESPN fame, will make the journey from the Bronx to Athens, Ohio, to take on their first MAC opponent since 2019 when they play the Bobcats on the last week of September.
The Rams finished a tough schedule at 6-5 in 2021, with not one, but two FBS opponents in the early portion of the schedule, playing Nebraska and Florida Atlantic and going 0-2. Against peer competition, they were 6-3, including 4-2 in Patriot League play.
Fordham is an intriguing team in terms of performance, falling 41 yards short of 5,000 total offensive yards as a unit in 2021, while scoring 50 total touchdowns and averaging nearly 33 points per game. It’s what they set their clock to in terms of on-field performance.
It certainly worked out for them, with four of their six victories being earned by 17 points or more, including a 66-21 beatdown of Bucknell and a 41-20 win on the road vs. Georgetown. Their other wins saw the rams put up 42 points (vs. Lafayette) and 35 points (vs. Lehigh.)
The question for this team will be their defense, however. In their two losses to FBS teams in 2021, they gave up 52 points (vs. Nebraska) and 45 points (vs. FAU.) They also had some questionable performances in conference play, including a 14-point loss to a 5-6 Colgate team at season’s end where they gave up 45 points, taking them out of any chance for at-large consideration or a conference title.
The Rams should return patriot League offensive player of the year Tim DeMorat at QB, as he seeks to lock down his spot atop Fordham’s passing leader charts with a fifth season in the Bronx. DeMorat had a career year in 2021, with 3,214 yards passing for 31 touchdowns and nine interceptions, with five of those coming in two games against FBS competition. He wouldn’t throw for an interception again until playing Holy Cross in Week 10, where he threw one. In their loss to end the season at Colgate, he threw three.
At halfback, the Rams return their top two rushing leaders, with junior Trey Wilson III projected to be the lead back after a 2021 season where he rushed for 566 yards on 103 attempts for three touchdowns. Trey Sneed, a fifth-year senior, should also push for a role after picking up 354 yards on just 49 attempts for an average of 7.3 yards per rush and four touchdowns.
Junior receiver Dequeece Carter (48 receptions, 872 yards, 11 touchdowns) returns as the leader in yards, while former NIU kick returner/wide receiver Fostis Kokosiulis (57 receptions, 783 yards, 13 touchdowns) returns as the team leader in receptions and touchdowns, earning first-team all-Patriot League receiver honors after pacing the conference. Garrett Cody and MJ Wright also return to the receiving corps, bringing a combined 60 receptions, 944 yards and four touchdowns to the table.
James Conway returns as the Rams’ leading tackler, after a true freshman campaign which saw him collect 130 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and four forced fumbles, earning him a second-team all-Patriot League nod. Conway ranked second in the FCS in tackles per game (11.9), making him a feature of the defense. Graduate linebacker and team captain Ryan Greenhagen will be a battery mate, with 102 tackles in just five games before getting injured, including a Division I record 31 tackles against Nebraska to open the season.
Edge rusher Alfonzo Dixon IV returns as sack leader (five in 2021) to go along with 44 tackles and eight tackles-for-loss, while second-year freshman Javari Rice-Wilson (three sacks and two tackles-for-loss out of six total tackles in 2021) should anchor the line. Fordham returns several defensive back prospects, including Natani Drati (48 tackles), Stephen Williams II (47 tackles, one interception), Spencer Brandon (team-leading six pass break-ups, 31 tackles) and Anthony Tony-Itoyah (36 tackles, five pass break-ups.)
Fordham has a history of success against MAC teams, going 2-3 all-time in contests against Ohio’s fellow MAC peers. The Bobcats need to be wary of Fordham’s potential as a unit as they gameplan for this matchup. Ohio should hopefully be settled in their various position battles by the time they get to this game, but as we saw last season, nothing is a certainty.
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