Football: Central Ohio college players navigate season during pandemic
As the University of Cincinnati football team prepared for the uncertainties of what this season might bring, one word stood out to sophomore linebacker Ty Van Fossen: sacrifice.
Van Fossen, a 2018 DeSales graduate, and his teammates continually were reminded that they would need to make personal sacrifices to get through a season during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“(It’s been) a very strange year and it’s been difficult to be honest,” Van Fossen said. “Embracing that sacrifice and playing for each other has got us to where we are. We also have really good players and I think the country is starting to see that.”
A dose of central Ohio talent has helped the Bearcats become one of the nation's premier programs not residing in a Power 5 conference.
Under coach Luke Fickell, a 1992 DeSales graduate and former Ohio State player and coach, Cincinnati went just 4-8 in his first season in 2017 but followed with finishes of 11-2 and 11-3 that included back-to-back bowl wins.
This year, the Bearcats won all eight of their regular-season contests and advanced to the American Athletic Conference championship game Dec. 19 against Tulsa, which they defeated 27-24 to set up a matchup against Georgia on Jan. 1 in the Peach Bowl.
It was far from an easy road considering Cincinnati went three weeks between its third and fourth games and then had nearly a month off after beating Central Florida 36-33 on Nov. 21 because of issues with the pandemic.
The Bearcats have been ranked in the top 10 nationally for most of the season.
“I really think our culture that this staff and coach Fickell has established is the biggest reason for our success," Van Fossen said. "Our seniors are guys that started with this staff when they first came in so I feel like we are all in top to bottom.”
Senior safety Darrick Forrest from Walnut Ridge, senior linebacker Ethan Tucky from Delaware, freshman long snapper Cayson Pfeiffer from Dublin Scioto and junior linebacker Ryan Royer from Hilliard Davidson are others who have been among Cincinnati's key players.
Cameron Young, a senior running back from Reynoldsburg who has seen limited time throughout his college career, ran for a 75-yard touchdown during the final moments of a 55-17 win over East Carolina on Nov. 13 as the program celebrated its seniors’ final home game.
Both Forrest and Van Fossen had 24 tackles and Tucky had 12 tackles through eight games. Van Fossen also is a regular on special teams.
“With Ty there and with coach Fickell and (assistant coach Marcus) Freeman, who recruits our area, we’re big fans obviously of (Cincinnati),” DeSales coach Ryan Wiggins said. “Having a player playing in the program makes it even better. It’s fun to watch. I’ve always watched (Fickell) from afar since I was always younger than him. … It’s fun to see someone from DeSales doing so well.”
•B1G POWER — After Ohio State had its Dec. 12 game against Michigan canceled because of COVID-19 issues in the Wolverines’ program, the Buckeyes were set up with a matchup in the Big Ten championship game Dec. 19 against Northwestern.
Ohio State won 22-10 and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff as the No. 3 seed. The Buckeyes play No. 2 Clemson in a semifinal Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl.
Northwestern will play Auburn in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.
Both the Buckeyes and Wildcats have players from central Ohio in key roles.
Northwestern has a trio of offensive linemen from the area in freshmen Ben Wrather and Te-Rah Edwards from Olentangy Liberty and Groveport, respectively, and senior Gunnar Vogel, a Westerville South graduate.
Vogel, a 6-foot-6, 310-pounder who was first-team all-state as a senior in 2016, started all of last season when Northwestern went 3-9 and has started at right tackle this fall.
For the Buckeyes, senior Jonathon Cooper, a Gahanna graduate, has started at defensive end and had 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks through five games. Senior Marcus Williamson, who attended Westerville South, starts at cornerback and had 15 tackles and one pass breakup.
Olentangy Orange graduate Zach Harrison is a sophomore defensive lineman who had four tackles for loss and two sacks.
•ON THE MID-MAJOR SCENE — The Mid-American Conference traditionally has been a destination for central Ohio players looking to compete at the mid-major level in the FBS.
The MAC was among the first football conferences to announce during the summer that it would be canceling the fall season only to later schedule a six-game season beginning the first week of November.
Ohio University, which has 13 players from central Ohio on its roster, went 2-1 but had three games canceled because of pandemic issues.
“It’s been really nice to get back out on the field and play this fall, especially with the group of guys we have here,” said Pickerington North graduate Ben Johnson, who made eight tackles at linebacker and also was on the kickoff return team. “Everyone on the team works hard and makes the environment here when football is around something special. When it first came out that we weren’t having a season, a lot of us were really disappointed. … The excitement around the team after finding out we were getting to play was great, especially for the seniors. It’s been crazy with injuries and positive tests, but everyone on the team has stepped up.”
Other contributors for the Bobcats included wide receiver Jerome Buckner (Gahanna), defensive lineman Jeremiah Burton (Reynoldsburg) and linebackers Cannon Blauser (Hilliard Bradley), Bryce Houston (Orange) and Jeremiah Wood (Pickerington Central).
“I’m just glad that all the hard work that (we did) in the offseason we’ve been able to show,” Houston said. “I’m just trying to prove that I can make plays wherever they put me.”
Toledo and Ball State, both of which battled Western Michigan for first in the MAC West, have central Ohio contributors as well.
Olentangy Liberty graduates Drew Rosi, a senior tight end, and Nick Rosi, a sophomore offensive lineman, both started games for Toledo.
For Ball State, sophomore starting offensive lineman Joe Boggs is a Reynoldsburg graduate. Senior Joe Greenwood is a Worthington Christian graduate and the starting long snapper, and freshman Jacob Lewis is an Olentangy Berlin graduate who has seen action at kicker.
Ball State is scheduled to play San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 31.
Marshall emerged as one of the top teams in Conference USA, with junior running back Brenden Knox, a Franklin Heights graduate, leading the way. He had rushed for 825 yards and nine touchdowns and added a receiving score through eight games, and had 2,837 career rushing yards and 24 career touchdowns after his team dropped to 7-1 with a 20-0 loss to Rice on Dec. 5.
The Thundering Herd’s game Dec. 11 against Charlotte was canceled, leaving the program preparing for bowl season. Marshall is scheduled to play Buffalo in the Camellia Bowl on Dec. 25.
Hilliard Davidson graduate Robert LeFevre, a senior punter, averaged 41 yards on 21 punts during the regular season.
•FCS SUCCESS — While most of the Football Championship Subdivision is playing a spring season and holding playoffs in May, 17 programs elected to play at least one game this fall.
Among the teams that chose to compete was Eastern Kentucky, which played a mixture of FBS and FCS programs and went 3-6.
Alonzo Booth, who helped DeSales go 13-1 as a senior and left the program as its all-time leading rusher, is a redshirt junior running back who rushed for 708 yards and seven touchdowns on 152 carries. He has 1,484 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns for his career.
“Even from when he was young into high school, Alonzo’s always been good with the ball in his hands at every level,” Wiggins said.