Life is often about the small victories. We yearn and hope for those big breaks that can change the course of our lives, but those aren’t what gets us through the day.
We get through the day knowing that we made progress toward those big aspirations. We know that in order to get where you ultimately desire, small steps and moral victories are needed. Ohio couldn’t capture their ultimate dream of a Mid-American Conference championship, but the steps they made to get there in 2022 should set them up for success throughout the immediate future.
Leaving the 21-10 loss to Bowling Green to end the 2021 season, the Bobcat program was in turmoil. They had just finished a 3-9 season under a first-year head coach with Tim Albin stepping in for Frank Solich. It obviously never became an indictment on Albin’s coaching ability, but it was getting hard to find optimism heading into this year.
There were no positions solidified heading into the new season. Their leading returning receiver from last year was Tyler Walton with 32 catches. They had returning production from the running back room, but early injuries to O’Shaan Allison and Julian Ross made it so Sieh Bangura, a redshirt freshman, become the lead back for this team.
It seems crazy to say now, but even the quarterback position had its questions heading into 2022. Kurtis Rourke had previously shown flashes, completing at least 65% of passes in his first two years, but nothing that would make you think he would become the MAC Player of the Year. Maybe it was the lack of talent around him last year, but his 11:7 touchdown to interception ratio was nothing too special.
The program was cautiously optimistic regarding their defense taking a step forward this year, but that was about all of the excitement around Athens once MAC Media Day came rolling around.
Personally, I felt lucky enough to have a close, in-depth look at the team when coming from a relatively unique and outside perspective heading into the season.
Starting as the sports editor in late July while just having come out of college, I had absolutely no idea about Ohio or what MAC football entailed. They were just always that conference that played on Tuesday’s sometimes.
Growing up in the Northeast, collegiate sports don’t really hold all that much weight. Die-hard sports fans appreciated it but as a whole, collegiate sports really served no purpose. We already had our sports teams, and they were all pro. With a professional team no more than a few hours away no matter where you lived, it just made sense. The college teams up there don’t usually do that well, either.
Basketball had its spotlight for sure. In its prime, the Big East made college basketball important in the Northeast. Madison Square Garden became the Mecca of college basketball as well.
As it does with most things though, greed came into play. Money was shuffled around, conferences were realigned and we were put right back into the position we always found ourselves in.
I was 10 when Kemba Walker hit that step-back mid-range game winner against Pitt. That was the end of the Big East’s reign and the end of people in New York caring about college hoops.
From there my collegiate passion surrounded Notre Dame. It was sort of ironic that I rooted for the one team that didn’t even have its own conference.
The SEC was just a conglomerate of schools who were better than everybody else and won six straight national titles in my early childhood.
I didn’t fully understand how psychotic and intense the atmosphere was around the Southeast and the conference. Once I got to the University of Kentucky, I learned quickly.
Following the SEC was like following its own separate sport. There’s so much news and action that happens that you really can’t care all that much about what’s happening around the country. Admittedly too, I feel like there’s some sort of bias that you develop when covering the SEC. It’s basically unanimously seen as the best collegiate conference in the country it terms of ability and talent. I got to interview and stand next to so many future NFL and NBA stars that it became all I could think or worry about. That, and having to wonder if John Calipari is going to hit you with his car in the Dunkin Donuts parking lot.
That was a long-winded way just to say, I had no idea what I was getting into coming to Athens. I started working here just a couple days before MAC Media Day, it was really the first assignment I had to do. People in the newsroom had warned me that Ohio was looking to be a bottom-of-the-barrel team in the MAC this season. I was told that I would cover the team, but not to expect anything too crazy.
I took the advice and heard it, but I’ve watched more than enough sports in my life to know not to make assumptions without watching the team.
What people were saying made sense though. Ohio was the third worst scoring offense in 2021 and was a bottom half defense in terms of scoring. They had made some portal moves in order to get better weapons on the outside, but expectations can’t really be placed on transfers like that.
I heard all that, but I like to be the one who doesn’t judge something until I see it. I was so new to Athens and the MAC that I couldn’t make an educated guess. I just had a ‘wait and see’ mentality.
As I mentioned earlier though, there was one thing that sparked my interest around the possibility of this team. There were a whole bunch of negatives, but maybe the most important positive was already there for Ohio.
In my mind, completion percentage means everything. It’s not a test of strength, it’s not a test of mobility and it doesn’t even take into account your big play ability. It’s the simplest, and in my mind, most effective stat out there. It’s how often you throw it and it’s a good enough position for your receivers to catch it.
Despite a not so great turnover to interception ratio, Rourke had the completion percentage necessary to give me optimism as an outsider. Boy, did he prove me right.
Rourke was the prime example of showing that he possessed the talent, he just needed the weapons around him to make his stats look up to his talent ability. With newcomers Sam Wiglusz and Jacoby Jones becoming impact players immediately, Rourke began to shine. He finished the year completing just under 70% of his passes while tossing 25 touchdowns to only four interceptions.
Having the privilege to be around the team and talk to the players all season, it’s easy to see why he made the jump and root for the Maple Missile. For someone who saw a meteoric rise this year, Rourke is incredibly grounded in his work and outlook around football. He’s one of the nicest people to get the chance to talk to and he’s incredibly knowledgeable about the game.
Most importantly though I feel, he’s got the mentality and maturity to blossom into a star in this game. The way he speaks about losses and wins are the same, it’s all about being consistent and buying into the work you’ve put in all season.
Rourke has already committed to returning to Ohio for another year, giving him a chance to build off his breakout campaign this season. Maybe more importantly though, nearly all of his weapons should be on pace to come back as well.
Wiglusz and Jones have the opportunity to return, and it would make sense if both came back. Bangura is coming back for another year. The offensive line will go through some significant changes, but they’re set up to repeat the same offensive success they saw this season.
Watching the one-year rise from a 3-9 team to a currently 9-3 team with a chance to get double-digit victories, it’s impressive. Albin found the way to connect with his group of players and showed his ability to successfully coach a championship-level team.
The 2022 Ohio Bobcats’ season should be a lesson to all. Preseason rankings mean nothing, you ultimately decide what your team will be. They didn’t complete the ultimate goal, but they for sure did enough to prove that Ohio Bobcats football is here to stay for the foreseeable future. I’d like to think I’m still unbiased having no real affiliation with the school, but from what I’ve seen, Athens should be thrilled with the year they had and the small victories they garnered along the way.
The final stop for these Bobcats is the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 30 in Tucson.
Eric Decker is the sports editor for the Athens Messenger.
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