Penn State’s preparations for Saturday’s opener against Ohio University started last week with film study and multiple practice periods geared toward the Bobcats.
It didn’t take long for veterans to manufacture a conclusion: the Bobcats represent the toughest Week 1 assignment of their college careers.
“If you watch them on tape, they are good,” fifth-year senior defensive end Pete Massaro said. “They are a good football team. They have a lot of experience coming back. They are going to be a very tough opponent.”
Three of Penn State’s past four Week 1 opponents — Indiana State, Youngstown State and Coastal Carolina — presented tap-ins. Akron, which visited Beaver Stadium in 2009, is a recent Mid-American Conference bottom feeder.
Ohio is predicted to win the MAC East. Some are viewing the Bobcats, who went 10-4 and won a bowl game for the first time in school history last season, as a potential Bowl Championship Series buster.
When the schools reached a scheduling agreement in 2008, it appeared the game would pad both athletic department’s coffers. The Bobcats are receiving $850,000 for visiting Beaver Stadium, while Penn State is receiving a lucrative seventh home game.
Four years later, the game offers one of the MAC’s top programs a major showcase. ESPN is broadcasting the game, which begins at noon, and the television audience might swell because of the curiosity surrounding Penn State’s on-field response to recent NCAA sanctions. Penn State officials are hoping Saturday’s crowd exceeds 100,000 fans.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” Ohio athletic director Jim Schaus said in a telephone interview. “We want our student-athletes to play against teams of the highest level. It helps financially in our budget and it helps building a program and in recruiting if we’re playing a high-quality opponent on national TV.”
Neither the Bobcats nor coach Frank Solich should be fazed by the scene. Ohio returns 15 starters from a team that lost four games by a combined 19 points. The Bobcats recently visited Ohio State and Tennessee, two of college football’s most hostile environments. The Bobcats played both teams tough, losing to Tennessee 34-23 in 2009 and Ohio State 26-14 in 2008. The Buckeyes handled the Bobcats 43-7 in 2010.
Solich’s Ohio tenure, which started in 2005, includes a road victory at Illinois and home victory against Pittsburgh. He called playing at Penn State a “huge challenge.”
“But we have been to Ohio State twice and probably should have won one of those games,” he added. “We played Tennessee within range. We beat Illinois, we beat Pittsburgh. We have some things to fall back on. I’m interested to see how we respond to this situation.”
This isn’t the first time Solich has groomed a team to play at Penn State. His 2002 Nebraska team lost to the Nittany Lions 40-7 before 110,753 fans.
Soilch replaced Tom Osborne in 1998 and led Nebraska to a 58-19 record in six seasons, but athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich after the Cornhuskers went 9-3 went in 2003.
After a year away from coaching, Solich landed at Ohio, which won just 11 games from 2001-04. Two key assistants — offensive coordinator Tim Albin and defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow — worked with Solich at Nebraska. They are among four assistants who were part of Solich’s original Ohio staff.
“That continuity is a plus for our football team,” Solich said. “We have a lot of contacts around the country. We recruit the entire country, not just Ohio and the surrounding states.”
The staff has evolved since arriving in Athens, a small city in rural southeastern Ohio that houses 22,000 college students. The Bobcats’ offense featured rugged Nebraska-like characteristics early in Solich’s tenure, but they now scrap the fullback for a third wide receiver in many formations.
Ohio averaged 248.7 passing plays and 30.5 points per game last season. Quarterback Tyler Tettleton, the son of former Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Tettleton, returns after passing for a school-record 3,302 yards last season.
The style has helped Ohio increase its talent pool. The Bobcats’ roster includes players from 18 states, including Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas and California. Altoona’s Tyler Futrell, Neal Huynh and Alphonso Lewis, and Hollidaysburg’s Ryan McGrath, are among the projected starters.
“There’s no question we are getting more athletic guys,” Solich said.
Increased television exposure is helping Ohio raise its profile. The Bobcats’ final six 2011 games were aired on ESPN networks. Ohio is already scheduled to appear on ESPN networks five times this season.
“It’s huge for our alumni and it’s huge for our brand name,” Schaus said. “We’re Ohio University, we’re in Athens, Ohio, we wear green and white. We’re not Ohio State. We’re not this other school. The exposure is tremendous for our program. We don’t take it for granted.”
The renewed interest helped the school implement a plan to improve its football facilities, and season ticket sales are up 92 percent over last season.
Throw it together, and Penn State might be facing its toughest opener since Miami’s 2001 visit.
“They are a heck of a football team with a great coach in Frank Solich,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “That’s going to be a very tough opener.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy