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Wednesday, August 22,2012

’Cats cope with high hopes; are picked to triumph in the MAC

By Wes Mayberry
Photo Credits: Photo by Steven Turville
Photo Caption: Head coach Frank Solich, now in his eighth year at Ohio University, discusses the season ahead for the Bobcats football team during pre-season interviews at Peden Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 11. Anticipation is high with last season’s first bowl game ever and starting the coming season as a conference favorite.

After being selected by the Mid-American Conference's media contingent as the preseason favorite to repeat as MAC East champions, the Ohio Bobcats were also named to defeat predicted MAC West representative Toledo to win Ohio's first conference championship since 1968.

With this honor – and accompanying high expectations – bestowed upon them, the Ohio Bobcats football team began its two-a-day practices on Saturday, Aug. 11, before holding its annual preseason media day at Peden Stadium.

Rather than increasing the pressure for his team to perform well, eighth-year head head coach Frank Solich has treated this recognition as an honor to the entire team, both past and present.

"I think it's a real tribute to our football players and the guys who have played here in the past who have gotten the program from where it came from as not really being recognized as a threat to win the conference, to now being chosen to win the conference," Solich said. "I think it's also a tribute to our coaching staff. Our guys have done a great job of coaching here year in and year out."

Senior tight-end Jordan Thompson agrees.

"To see Ohio's name at the top of the list is exciting," he said. "I think there's a lot of excitement surrounding our program right now. It's good to know that people respect the program."

Meanwhile, senior defensive lineman Neal Huynh said he sees this recognition as motivation for the team to perform well for the entire season.

"It's a little different for us as a team because we haven't been picked to win the last few years. Everyone is going to be gunning for us, so we'll come out and make sure we're playing our best football," Huynh said. "We can't take days off and we can't take games off. I think the biggest thing is to keep everyone's focus on the right path so that no one tries to expect things. We have to go out and earn everything."

The Bobcats, who return 15 starters, are coming off a 10-4 season in which they won their first-ever bowl game, and enter the 2012 campaign looking to not only improve their record but to win the MAC championship as well.

"In the MAC championship game, we've got a theme of unfinished business," Solich said. "We've gotten there, but we've not been able to win it. This past season, we were very, very close, but being close is not getting it done. So there are obviously some goals out there that we have yet to reach."

BEFORE MAC PLAY EVEN begins, the Bobcats have a tough slate of non-conference opponents that is highlighted by the Sept. 1 season-opener against Penn State. The game will be televised on ESPN and will mark the teams' first meeting since 1974. Although scandal-ravaged PSU has had a tumultuous offseason (to say the least), the 'Cats say they're treating this contest just like any other game on their schedule.

"We're just looking to go in and prepare for a football game. Everything else surrounding it, we don't have control of that," Thompson said. "We're prepared to play a football game against a great team. Their coach has a great background with the NFL, and I think they're going to have their team ready to go, and we'll have ours ready to go."

Junior wide receiver Donte Foster and senior defensive lineman Tremayne Scott have similar sentiments about the game in Happy Valley.

"We're there to play football, so all the outside information really doesn't occur to us," Foster said. "We're going to go there and play our hearts out, and they're going to play their hearts out, and the score will tell us if we win or lose."

"My mindset is going to be 'this is one game that's going to give us one win or one loss.' It's going to definitely be a big game, but it's not THE game that's going to determine our season," Scott said.

However, junior quarterback Tyler Tettleton views the season opener as an opportunity to get a big-time victory for the Ohio football program.

"What we've wanted to do is go into a big BCS school like them and try and get a huge win, and I think we really have a good chance of getting one," Tettleton said. "It's going to be fun going there and playing against them."

UNFORTUNATELY FOR THE 'CATS, they will be entering the season without some of their veteran talent, including wide receiver LaVon Brazill and linebacker Noah Keller, who made so many key plays in 2011. Thus, it has been the goal of this year's upperclassmen to fill these leadership roles.

With four players graduating who caught more than 120 passes last season, tight-end Thompson will be looked upon to increase his role in the passing game.

"In years past, we've had tremendous receivers, where the tight end was used more as a blocker," Thompson said. "This year, we're looking forward to splitting out a little bit and catching some passes."

Foster also looks for his role to increase.

"As a returning starter, I feel like I need to be able to lead these other wide receivers, and I'm just going to do the best I can to show them the ropes and have the experience out there to make plays," he said.

Scott said the same is true on the defensive side of the ball.

"The outlook for the defense is for all of our seniors to step up," he said. "Noah made a lot of plays for us last year that could've gone for many yards and many touchdowns. It's going to be on us as seniors to step up and fill his role that he had last season."

After completing their non-conference schedule, which also includes games against New Mexico State, Marshall and Norfolk State, the Bobcats will travel to take on MAC newcomer UMass in the Minutemen's first-ever MAC game. The 'Cats' remaining MAC schedule, which features six games on ESPN networks, is highlighted by a Nov. 7 home meeting against Bowling Green, which the media selected as the second-best team in the MAC East.

However, Solich sees a challenge in every game on the MAC schedule.

"There isn't much that separates those teams at the very top of the conference from those teams at the bottom of the conference," Solich said. "If you don't play your best football week after week in the MAC, you don't win football games no matter if you're favored or not. So it will be extremely challenging for us, but we're going to make it extremely challenging for the other teams in the MAC, too. I think it will be a great, competitive year."

Now that he has a season's worth of experience, it will be up to the talented Tettleton, the Bobcats' offensive star, to assume the leadership position that will help his team have success in these tight games. The quarterback accounted for 38 touchdowns last season en route to becoming the first Bobcat signal-caller to throw for more than 3,000 yards.

"I think it's more on my shoulders to step up and lead these guys on offense," Tettleton said. "I think, over this past year, I've grown a lot within the offense, and being an upperclassman lends itself to me being a leader."

With the opening kickoff just a few weeks away, Solich said he's pleased with how his team has progressed through offseason practices, and looks forward to continual improvement from his team.

"We got off to a good start. I feel good about the attitude of the team and their enthusiasm out there and the speed that they are running around and practicing," Solich said. "I'm excited about being here. I'm excited about winning more football games and reaching more goals and moving this program forward to where we all want it to be."


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