The state of Ohio is widely considered to be among the top football states nationwide. That honor is reflected at every level of the gridiron, from the professional ranks to every division of college, right down to the high schools that dot the map. From the banks of the Ohio River to the shores of Lake Erie, football is treated almost as a second religion in this state. It brings communities together, ensuring that for a few hours per week, the spice of life is sweetened by the activity between the end zones.
The one thing that remains consistent at every level of football played in Ohio is the essence of the rivalry. Rivalries in the modern era of football tend to resemble one-game seasons at times, adding an almost “do or die” flavor to what are typically big games to begin with. These games allow what is already a hyped-up atmosphere to reach epic proportions in terms of expectations and consequences for the teams depending on the game’s outcome. For proof, look no further than this Saturday’s game between the Bobcats and the Redhawks, which happens to be the longest running series in Ohio history, dating back to 1945.
The Mid-American Conference has its share of great rivalries in the state of Ohio. Toledo and Bowling Green have a clause that ensures the two schools play each season to continue their long-standing tradition. Akron versus Kent State is a terrific example of how programs so close to one another can battle in every which way possible, from on the field to recruiting to community support.
But for my money, I’ll take Ohio-Miami year in, year out. Perhaps it’s the fact that these teams have so much in common that makes it a unique game. Ohio utilizes an unconventional offense that features the option as its primary weapon in moving the chains. Miami, in contrast, runs the spread and uses ‘in the pocket’ quarterbacks and a single back running attack. Both have systems that score points and win games, in conference and out. Ohio’s Brian Knorr and Miami’s Terry Hoeppner are both defensive minded coaches with drastically different outlooks on scheme, but each made their mark as coordinators. The Bobcats and Redhawks recruit Cincinnati extremely hard, usually focusing on the same handful of standout players. Each program resides in a town that is dominated by the presence of their respected institution. Last but not least, these two teams don’t like each other.
What really seems to bring this rivalry to the forefront, however, is that the stakes are typically high. A good way of explaining the importance of the Ohio-Miami game is to size up last season’s contest, a 27-24 Redhawk win in Oxford. Ohio dominated the home team for three quarters, with Dontrell Jackson running the option keeper like Beethoven played piano, perfectly. Then Miami’s Mike Bath, a senior who had struggled all day, came back from an earlier benching to throw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jason Branch for the go-ahead points. Bath, who would overshadow Jackson’s career high 211 yards rushing, made only a handful of plays, but he made the ones that counted.
With the loss, the Bobcats were knocked out of contention for the East Division championship with two games to go. How bad did the Miami loss sting after Ohio pounded eventual league champion Marshall 38-28 in the season finale? For argument sake, leave a glass of milk out for about a week, then shake it up real good and take a drink. The loss wasn’t just sour… it was disgusting. Such is the double-edged sword that is known as a rivalry. This year, the table is again set for one team to challenge Marshall for the crown, while the other sits with a loss and ponders ‘what if.’
This season, Ohio struggled to find its identity while losing its first four games, all of which were nail-biters. With the win at Central Michigan last weekend, the Bobcats are again poised and ready to make a run at the East Division, even though they are without the services of half back Chad Brinker. Fortunately, Ray Huston and Stafford Owens are emerging at the right time, teaming with veterans Jamel Patterson and Joe Sherrill to give the ‘Cats plenty of firepower on offense. The key this week, however, will be the defense, which must play its best game to date.
Miami, after two losses to Michigan and Iowa, has reeled off four straight wins and capped that streak with a last second, Hail Mary touchdown heave for a score to win against Akron. Redhawk signal caller Ben Roethlisberger has been fantastic in his first season at the helm, and with a good running game behind him, it’s time to step it up for the Ohio defense.
The bottom line for this Saturday’s game (slated for a 3:05 p.m. start) is that with Miami’s win over Akron, the Bobcats have another opportunity to become a force to be reckoned with in the divisional race. Granted, the season is at the midpoint for Ohio, but lessons learned a year ago prove that every game is a must from here on.
Ohio versus Miami never fails to provide the drama and pageantry one would expect from a long-standing rivalry. It just so happens that along with the outcome, great reward or consequence follow. For Ohio players, coaches, and fans, the Miami game is a season in itself, and this week’s game offers not just a boost in East Division standing and a second win of the year, but a chance for a little payback as well.