Ohio University’s football team should not to be confused with, compared with, or even mentioned in the same breath with Ohio State University. The teams’ expectations and histories diverged a century ago, and Ohio is not contemplating a challenge to the Buckeyes for state supremacy.
But this season, both teams are off to 4-0 starts. And Ohio started the season with a 24-14 victory at Penn State.
“We’re not at the level of their program by any stretch of the imagination,’’ said Ohio coach Frank Solich. “No school in the MAC is. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make strides to elevate our program.
“That is what everyone is trying to do in the MAC. That’s why you see the MAC getting better and better, why you see MAC schools lining up and beating teams. The conference is being elevated. Ohio State is dominant in the state, but there are a lot of good programs in Ohio.’’
The University of Massachusetts is getting an up-close look at those programs. The Minutemen lost to Miami of Ohio, 27-16, in their Mid-American Conference opener last week, and this Saturday they will meet Ohio at Gillette Stadium.
Ohio’s ambitions have increased since Solich arrived in 2005. The Bobcats had four successive losing seasons from 2001-04 and went for a fifth in Solich’s first year.
But in 2006, Ohio went 9-5, taking the MAC East championship — the first time it finished first in the conference since 1968 — and advancing to the GMAC Bowl. That was followed by 6-6 and 4-8 records.
Since 2009, Ohio has been winning regularly, advancing to three straight bowl games with records of 9-5, 8-5, and 10-4.
And Ohio has even been taking the field against Ohio State. The teams did not face each other from 1902 through 1999, except for a 1918 contest involving the Ohio State freshman team (listed as a 13-6 win for Ohio). Ohio State has won the two recent confrontations with the Bobcats, by scores of 26-14 in 2008 and 43-7 in 2010.
But the Bobcats know their place and they have become dominant there, winning the MAC East championship last year and compiling a 19-5 conference record over the last three seasons.
“We know what the MAC is all about,’’ Solich said. “UMass is a great fit for our conference, and we expect a great ballgame.
“In terms of competition, you’ve got to be ready to play every week, and if you’re not, you’re not going to win. Our mind-set is to really prepare well, play well, and see what else transpires.
“UMass is well-coached. We’ve seen them on film and they have been impressive. They have played a tough schedule: three BCS schools, on the road against Miami, all their games away except one.
“I’m sure they’ll be anxious to be get back on their home field. And we see it as a huge challenge and hope to play well.
“They’ve been up against very physical, talented teams. Coming off those games, obviously, if you don’t sustain a lot of injuries, you can benefit. Even though the record may not show it, a team can benefit from those types of games and those experiences.’’
Among Ohio’s few question marks has been the quarterback position. Starter Tyler Tettleton, son of former major league catcher Mickey Tettleton, missed the Bobcats’ 44-10 win over Norfolk State last week with an undisclosed injury and his status has not been determined for Saturday.
Derrius Vick, a redshirt freshman, made his first start and went 14 for 20 with four touchdown passes against Norfolk State.
Solich said Tettleton participated in practice Wednesday and will likely be a game-time decision.
Part of Ohio’s success can be traced to offensive precision. Tettleton was 66 for 99 without an interception in the opening three contests. The Bobcats’ only turnovers have been two fumbles.
And much of the credit for the low turnover total goes to the quarterback.
“We utilize him in the running and passing game,’’ Solich said of Tettleton. “Some plays are called for him, there are some reads for him. He handles the ball in both the running and passing game. He’s a guy who can scramble and make plays when plays break down and protection breaks down, and that’s the kind of quarterback that’s best for us and fits what we want to do.
“We have not made changes [for Vick]. He’s been running the offense in the spring camp and fall, all the practices this season. And now, he has a full game under his belt. We prepare the same with him or Tyler — no difference with one in or the other. He’s expected to have the same number of plays, the same style of plays. They are similar in ability.’’
Tettleton passed for 3,302 yards and 28 touchdowns, plus running for 10 scores, last season. In the opener against Penn State, Tettleton rallied Ohio from a 14-3 halftime deficit, passing for two touchdowns and running for one in the second half. Tettleton went 31 of 41 for 324 yards passing in the game.
“That was a huge win for us in terms of our program, of taking steps with our program,’’ Solich said. “When the coaches arrived here [eight] years ago, Ohio was not winning. And now we’re on ESPN a lot with the contract with our conference, and being seen around the country by recruits and alumni.
“Any time you are playing in a game like that, that is televised, and against an opponent like that — Penn State, in terms of wins and losses and how strong they have been over the years — it’s certainly a plus for your program if you can come out on top.
“I thought our players handled the atmosphere well. It was not easy. For Penn State, it was an emotional game, they wanted to start the season off, and we played four very good quarters.’’