For Tim Albin and the Bobcats it was a worst-case scenario.
Ohio’s winning streak against FCS teams ended Saturday with a humbling, embarrassing 28-26 loss to visiting Duquesne in front of 19,411 fans at Peden Stadium.
When the Bobcats finally play again home, a month from now, it’s hard to imagine there being a fraction of the buzz or enthusiasm that showed up in the stadium for the first two games of the 2021 season. Short-handed Duquesne, beaten badly and beaten up the week before at TCU, was more physical, owned the line of scrimmage when it mattered, and demolished the Bobcats with a keep-away strategy that Ohio was unable or unwilling to break.
The loss was Ohio’s first against the FCS since 2002, and the first since the Frank Solich era began in 2005. Tim Albin, Solich’s successor, places great value in the program that has been built in the last 16 years.
He knows better than anyone the damage one day like Saturday can cause. And Ohio fans, tempered by decades of football futility, and can already envision a return to darker times.
“I’m disappointed. My heart hurts about it,” he said. “I can’t speak for the people outside. All I can do is speak to this football team and this staff.
“We’re going to forge ahead.”
Albin’s first two games as head coach have already seen a mountain’s worth of setbacks. His team has suffered safeties in each of the first two games when running plays from their own 1-yard line were stuffed in their own end zone. The defense has yet to create a turnover. A new placekicker has left seven points on the field with missed kicks in two games.
The problems are everywhere, the injuries are mounting, and the ‘Cats didn’t look much different athletically from their competition on Saturday despite a plus-45 edge in scholarship players.
In two weeks, Ohio’s promising return to football after a COVID-marked 2020 has been hit by a lop-sided loss to a beatable Power-5 team, and then a stomach-turning setback in the one gimmie on the schedule. If Ohio can’t take out Duquesne, then who’s left on the schedule that they can?
Albin and the players made available afterward did their best to dispel such thoughts and talked about moving forward, turning the proverbial page, and simply getting better.
“My grandma would say looking at the sun, you never see the shadows. As leaders we need to keep our heads high, and those younger guys will see that,” said Ohio DT Kai Caesar. “They will understand what we’re wanting, and they do understand what we want to accomplish with this team. So, the biggest thing is just leading even when it hurts.
“As I tell myself all the time, it’s easy to lead when stuff is going good, but you got to know how to lead when it hurts. So, we’ll do it. We’ll get it done.”
Ohio could look to missed opportunities and a break here or there and talk itself into thinking a win over Syracuse was a possibility. But the depression that will come with the Duquesne loss will center on the simple fact that the Bobcats couldn’t get a stop defensively.
Against a team from a lower division
With its backup quarterback.
Who was making his first start.
Duquesne had five drives of 10 or more plays. After starting the game 1-of-7 on third down, the Dukes converted six of their last nine. The time of possession was obscene; Duquesne 41:02, Ohio 18:58. The Dukes averaged a mediocre 4.6 yards per play (Ohio was at 6.7) but with no impact plays defensively Ohio couldn’t get that group off the field.
And when OU looked it did get a stop in the second half, they handed a conversion to their opponents. Duquesne was blessed with seven first downs by penalty, including six in the second half. Each of the Dukes’ final four scoring drives benefited from at least one major Ohio penalty.
That, in and of itself, would be enough to induce bile from any coach. Albin managed not to have his own head explode with rage when asked about it afterward.
“We couldn’t get out of our way at times,” he said. “There’s some good things in there, but it is not Bobcat Football. And our guys know it.”
Ohio’s defensive line was blocked too easily, and too long. The defensive unit is playing without linebackers Keye Thompson and Jeremiah Wood, and defensive end Bryce Stai due to injuries. On Saturday, CB Justin Birchette — a game 1 starter — did not see playing time.
The rough edges on special teams also continued. A season-ending injury to long snapper Justin Holloway meant that Ohio used linebacker Jack McCrory (field goals) and tight end Adam Luehrman (punts) in that role on Saturday. Not fielding a punt led to a possession start on the 1-yard line and an eventual safety.
Offensively, the Bobcats are better, but inconsistent. Without guards Hagen Meservy and Kurt Danneker, the interior offensive line play has not been as good as expected. Right tackle Jay Amburgey was called for two holding penalties that killed a pair of drives in the middle two quarters. WR Isiah Cox missed a second straight game, and Jerome Buckner followed his breakout Game 1 with no catches in Game 2 and a shoulder injury.
But with 10 games remaining, and MAC play still three weeks away, Albin knows he and his team can’t dwell on the negative aspects seemingly popping up all over like an impromptu cicada brood.
The Bobcats need to create turnovers. And stop the run better. And run the ball better themselves. And sharpen up on special teams. And quit giving away field position. And a million other things.
“We need to be better at everything we do,” Caesar said.
It rests on Albin and his staff to find a way to make that happen. If there was a honeymoon period, it’s over now. FCS losses do that.
Ohio’s program has made incredible strides in the last two decades. It’s relevant. There are expectations. And now there’s real pressure.
Albin believes his team will find a way to meet it. He didn’t illuminate the changes coming, or outline a detailed plan. The Bobcats will do what they’ve always done — get back to work and try to be better the next time out.
“We’re not just going to turn the page, I can assure you of that. We’re going to go about our business just like we have in my time here,” he said. “We’re going to take steps moving forward to fix the things that we can fix and get these guys mentally ready to go.
“I certainly believe we can get some things done come conference time…we’re going to factor in,” Albin continued. “We’re going to be a dangerous football team. I firmly believe that.”
The reason for Albin’s optimism remains clouded from outsiders, but he insists it’s there. Now he and the coaching staff just has to find a way to let it come to the forefront.
“The new week starts tomorrow,” said WR Cam Odom. “We got to prepare for it. That’s what we can do.”