Old Dominion’s third season of football has provided several firsts.
In Week Four, the Monarchs played their first conference game as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. The next week they achieved two more firsts – the first conference win and their first win over a ranked opponent (UMass). Following the win, ODU received its first top 25 ranking.
Other firsts included their first road conference win (Week Six) and their first win in the revived Oyster Bowl (Week Nine). Antonio Vaughan’s CAA Rookie of the Week Award in Week One was the team’s first individual award from the conference. At season’s end, Ronnie Cameron became the first Monarch to win the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year honors.
The season of firsts continues this Saturday. When the Monarchs take the field, it will be the first playoff game in the program’s brief history. It will also mark the team’s first game against its opponent, Norfolk State University.
The quick ascension of Old Dominion (9-2, 6-2) to playoff status resulted from contributions in all phases. After starting quarterback Thomas DeMarco was injured in the win against UMass, Taylor Heinicke guided the Monarchs to the highest scoring average in the CAA. Linebacker Craig Wilkins joined Ronnie Cameron on the All-CAA First Team Defense; ODU was second in the conference in sacks and tied for third in turnovers forced. Jonathan Plisco led the CAA in punting average, and six different Monarchs blocked kicks.
Meanwhile Norfolk State (9-2, 7-1) enters the playoffs as the regular season champion of the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference (MEAC). The Spartans, led on offense by senior quarterback Chris Walley, averaged 393 yards and 28 points per game this season. Norfolk State’s defense led the MEAC in total defense (266 yards/game) and scoring defense (16 points/game).
The three areas most likely to impact the outcome of the game are the play of the lines, red zone scoring and special teams.
Performance of the Lines
The play of both the offensive and defensive lines has been the key to Old Dominion’s success. Along the offensive line, four starters (Ryan Jensen, David Born, Jeremy Hensley and Robbie Duncan) started all eleven games. The fifth starter (Robbie Duncan) started the final ten games at right guard. The line surrendered a CAA-low 18 sacks, and allowed ODU to average 4.5 yards per rush attempt.
The Monarchs’ line must slow the Spartans’ aggressive 3-4 defense. Led by senior linebackers Corwin Hammond (108 tackles, 13 tackles-for-loss) and Hasan Craig (12 TFL’s), the Spartans recorded an astounding 91 TFL’s. Thirty-four of those tackles were sacks, a number that led all MEAC teams. Given the production of NSU’s defense coupled with the added pressure of the playoffs on a freshman quarterback, the success of the Monarchs’ offense is predicated on the play of its line.
On the other side of the ball, ODU’s defensive line has helped to alleviate the pressure from its secondary, which suffered significant injuries throughout the season. From the defensive tackle position, Cameron led the conference with 15.5 TFL’s, was second among CAA linemen in tackles (67) and was tied for third overall in sacks (6.5). As a team the Monarchs were second in the conference with 34 sacks, one short of the leader (James Madison). Opponents averaged only 123 rushing yards per game at a rate of 3.2 yards per attempt.
Norfolk State itself allowed only 13 sacks all season, five of which came in its 14-6 loss to Bethune-Cookman. The Spartans’ line led the way to 168 rushing yards per game on 4.1 yards per attempt. The protection Walley received allowed him to throw 17 touchdowns against only four interceptions. Old Dominion must dominate the line of scrimmage on defense to prevent Walley from matching his 69% completion percentage on the season.
Red Zone Scoring
For the season, Old Dominion led the CAA in red zone scoring efficiency; the Monarchs scored on 41 of 47 red zone possessions (87%). The 47 possessions were tied for second-most in the CAA. Their rate of red zone scoring was even higher during conference play, as they scored on all but two of their 31 possessions. Both of those failed possessions came during the team’s win over Richmond, as the Monarchs scored on all 23 red zone possessions in their other seven conference games.
Conversely, opponents scored on only 23 of 34 red zone possessions against Norfolk State. Just 17 of those scores were touchdowns, and the 68% conversion rate was second-best among MEAC teams. The Spartans must both limit Old Dominion’s red zone chances and minimize the Monarchs’ effectiveness to keep its own offense in the game.
Special Teams Play
First Team All-CAA Punter Jonathan Plisco led the conference in average yards per punt (46.1) and longest individual punt (62 yards), as 19 of his punts registered at least 50 yards. But the Monarchs’ prowess on special teams is not limited to Plisco. Blocked kicks directly contributed to the team’s victories over James Madison, Hampton and Massachusetts, while a blocked field goal against William and Mary was instrumental in its four-point win. Norfolk State must be prepared to defend big plays against ODU’s special teams.
No matter which team scores the most points Saturday, the real winner is the city of Norfolk. The buzz surrounding the match-up has equaled if not surpassed that of the game against James Madison earlier this season. In such an electric atmosphere at S.B. Ballard Stadium, the Monarchs hope to deliver another first this weekend – the program’s first playoff win.
Joe will be reporting live from the game on Twitter, and you can follow him at VaBeachRep.