The football teams at Pitt and Ohio have met seven times. Nobody remembers much about the six times Pitt has won – not even the 71-0 shellacking the Panthers dealt the Bobcats in 1910 – but no one has forgotten Ohio’s lone win.
It might be because it’s the most recent meeting between the two sides, coming in 2005. Or it might be because it was the first signature win of Frank Solich’s tenure as the Bobcats’ head coach. Or might be because of how absolutely weird the game was: a 16-10 overtime victory for the Bobcats where not a single offensive touchdown was scored. LaRod Stephens-Howling housed the opening kickoff 95 yards to open the scoring for Pitt, then Dion Byrum notched a 38-yard pick-six to put Ohio on the board. The Bobcats kicked a 21-yard field goal to take the lead at halftime, then Pitt equalized with a 27-yard field goal at the end of regulation. Then, just three snaps into overtime, Byrum picked off Tyler Palko again, returning it 85 yards for his second score of the day and capturing a historic upset win for the Bobcats in Athens, Ohio on a Friday night.
— Seth Austin (@SethAustinTV) September 5, 2019
Solich, preparing for his second meeting with Pitt as Ohio’s head coach, hasn’t forgotten about that game either, but he’s trying not to think about it this week.
“That’s so long ago, it’s not even in my mind, to be very honest with you,” Solich said earlier this week. “Obviously, it was huge for us here at Ohio, to try to establish our program some and get off to a great start… It was a great moment for us at Ohio, but that moment’s gone.”
Pitt will attempt to avoid reliving its mistakes from a decade-and-a-half ago when the Bobcats come to Heinz Field for a brunch-time kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Pitt, still licking its wounds from a 30-14 loss to Virginia last week, will try to build some momentum before it faces hated in-state rival Penn State next week.
Ohio, meanwhile, is angling for another upset.
However, Solich is coming into this game with massive amounts of respect for Pitt, head coach Pat Narduzzi and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
“They’re a very physical football team,” Solich said of Pitt. “That’s where you start if you’re a coach. They’re capable of dominating a game from that aspect of it… Pitt is always known for a ground game. It’s a difficult situation to go into their stadium and play the quality of football team that they are and come out with a win.”
Ohio’s familiarity with Whipple
While the Bobcats and Panthers haven’t met since 2005, this will be the third straight season that Solich’s boys have faced an offense orchestrated by Whipple, Pitt’s first-year offensive coordinator. Ohio faced Whipple’s UMass teams in 2017 and 2018, taking wins in both games, but giving up lots and lots of points along the way.
Ohio took a 58-42 victory over UMass last year in Athens and escaped with a 58-50 win the year before in Amherst. UMass passed for more than 400 yards in each of those games.
“They scored a ton of points on us,” Solich said of Whipple’s UMass teams. “I think he is a guy that puts together, really, a multi-dimensional approach to offensive football. He’ll spread the field with you and make you cover everything. And he doesn’t forget about the running game. He’s not a guy that just throws the ball. He knows the running game really well and he’s great at identifying your weak spots and attacking those weak spots, whether it’s on the ground or in the air. He’s been a huge challenge for us. I have a lot of respect for him and his knowledge of the game and his ability to formulate game-plans.”
Whipple didn’t have much success in his first game as Pitt’s offensive coordinator, as the Panthers rushed for just 78 yards and passed for 185 yards on 41 attempts against Virginia. Pitt junior quarterback Kenny Pickett completed just a bit more than 50 percent of his passes and threw a pair of interceptions in his season debut.
Still, Solich has admiration for Pitt’s quarterback and pointed out that he’ll improve with more time with Whipple.
“He’s a tremendous athlete. He has good size, he can run and is a good thrower,” Solich said of Pickett. “He has five leading receivers coming back and that is very scary in itself. You put all that together and, you know, it’s a very explosive style of offense. It’s one that will be difficult to slow down. They’ll just keep getting better. I don’t have any doubts about that. The longer Coach Whipple is there working with them and the talent that they have, they’ll keep getting better.”
Ohio looked impressive in Week 1. Can they keep it going at Pittsburgh this week? pic.twitter.com/1qMVus4OHN
— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 5, 2019
Ohio defense a question mark
Whipple and Pickett might have more success this week against Ohio than they did against Virginia. While the Bobcats had an above average defensive unit last season – ranking 44th in points allowed per-game (24.6) – they surrendered a few scores to an FCS side last week in 41-20 win over Rhode Island.
Solich came away concerned with the defense’s performance, particularly when it came to getting into the backfield and getting Rhode Island off the field. Rhode Island had 21 first downs and had the ball for only about two minutes less than Ohio did. The Bobcats also notched just three tackles-for-losses and two sacks.
“I was a little disappointed in terms of tackles-for-loss and sacks. I feel we’ve got a good group there that’s capable of scoring high in that area, but we didn’t quite reach the expectations there. Credit’s got to go to the offensive line of Rhode Island,” Solich said. “We need to have better play from our defense in terms of time of possession.”
Ohio did make the most of their limited possessions against Rhode Island, scoring on all seven of them. The Bobcats were also five-for-five in the red-zone.
Meanwhile, Pitt’s offensive line wasn’t so good against Virginia last week, allowing seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage – four of which were sacks.
Ohio was first in the country last year in turnovers forced, making opposing offenses cough up the rock 32 times. But against Rhode Island, the Bobcats came up with just one turnover, an interception. Pitt turned the ball over twice last week.
Rourke is the man to beat
Solich entered the 2019 season tied with Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy as fourth among active coaches as the longest tenured at a single FBS school. Following the retirement of Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, Solich is the oldest FBS head coach at 74-years-old. His 164 wins are fourth among active FBS coaches, trailing only Nick Saban, Mack Brown and Gary Patterson.
Under Solich, Ohio had another solid season last year, going 9-4 (6-2 MAC), making it the sixth time they have won at least nine games in Solich’s 15 years at the helm. The Bobcats capped off their season by beating San Diego State 27-0 in the Frisco Bowl. They were the only MAC team to win a bowl game last season. In media and coaches polls, Ohio was tabbed as the favorite to win the conference in 2019.
Pat Narduzzi calls Ohio U coach Frank Solich a "legend." Called Solich's firing at Nebraska "one of biggest mistakes in nebraska history. I'm still pissed about it."
— Will Graves (@WillGravesAP) September 2, 2019
One of the big reasons for Ohio’s success last year – and a reason they’re a favorite this year – is because of the play of senior quarterback Nathan Rourke. Dubbed “Air Canada,” the Oakville, Ontario native threw for 23 touchdowns and rushed for another 15 last season. His rushing scores were second in the MAC last year, and he led the conference in passing yards per-attempt (8.9), passing efficiency rating (156.3), total yards (3,294), total yards per play (8.1) and touchdowns responsible for (38).
Last week against Rhode Island, the 6-foot-1 senior threw for 188 yards and two touchdowns on 16-of-22 passing, and rushed for 75 yards and a score on 10 carries.
With a solid performance, Rourke could break an Ohio record against Pitt. He’s accounted for 80 touchdowns during his time as a Bobcat, and just needs three more scores to break the program’s touchdown record, owned by Tyler Tettleton who graduated in 2013.
With Rourke as the team’s starting quarterback, Ohio averages 39.6 points per-game on offense over his 25 starts. That ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks with at least 15 starts, behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Utah State’s Jordan Love.
Against Rhode Island, nine different Ohio receivers caught Rourke’s passes.
“He’s been more than what you would hope for. Not only with his athleticism, with his running and throwing ability, but his leadership ability. He’s a smart, smart player. He’s studying the game all the time,” Solich said of his quarterback. “You couldn’t ask for anything more in a quarterback… You can see how important he’s been to us over the years because that gets reflected back to us and what he’s been able to do for a number of years now here for us.”
To beat Ohio — and to avoid another 2005 catastrophe — Pitt will have to contain Rourke, expose the holes in Ohio’s defense and find a rhythm for Pickett on offense.
“We’ve certainly got our hands full with these guys,” Solich said of Pitt. “They play hard. They’ve got talent.”