Old Dominion fans should be forgiven if they experienced “deja vu” at the start of Saturday’s game against Norfolk State. Spartan Receiver Derrick Demps caught a pass that traveled 30 yards in the air, and then scored a touchdown after two Monarch defenders knocked each other down. The play was eerily similar to one that occurred in the Monarchs’ loss to Towson earlier this season.
The difference between this play and Towson’s conversion on 4th and 29 is that the Spartans took a lead 103 seconds into the game; the Tigers took their lead with only 67 seconds remaining. On Saturday, the Monarchs would score 35 unanswered points following NSU’s long touchdown en route to a 35-18 win.
Freshman quarterback Taylor Heinicke completed 21 of 30 pass attempts for 269 yards and five touchdowns, while the Monarchs’ defense allowed only 308 yards other than Demps’ 98-yard touchdown. Receivers Prentice Gill and Nick Mayers scored two touchdown passes each, and safety Paul Morant led the team with eleven total tackles.
The big play, coupled with a fumble on the subsequent kickoff, could have rattled ODU early. Instead, the team’s senior leaders kept the team focused.
“We had to move past that opening big play,” CAA Defensive Player of the Year Ronnie Cameron said after the game. “It was unfortunate for our guys to collide into one another. Part of being a good team is moving on and not dwelling on one play for the rest of the game.”
Old Dominion’s fast-paced offense kept the Spartans on their heels early, as the Monarchs would score touchdowns on three of its first five possessions. Two of the scores came after interceptions of Chris Walley’s passes, both of which gave ODU possession inside NSU territory. The Spartans quarterback had a good statistical day, throwing for 363 yards and two touchdowns.
But Walley’s two first-quarter picks, along with a rambunctious crowd at S.B. Ballard Stadium, were too much for NSU to overcome. In the first quarter alone, Norfolk State committed four false start penalties. The Spartans committed 18 penalties overall for 135 yards on the day.
In the Zone’s preview of the game, the following three areas were identified that would most likely impact the outcome of the game.
Performance of the Lines
Facing the third-ranked defense in FCS Saturday, ODU’s offensive line led the way for 385 yards and five scores. The Spartans entered the game averaging more than eight tackles-for-loss per game this season, but managed only four against ODU. Norfolk State did play well against the run, as Monarch running backs managed 74 net yards on 29 carries (2.7 yards/attempt). But the Monarchs’ pass protection was up to the task against NSU, allowing Heinicke ample time throughout the game.
Meanwhile, the Monarchs’ defensive line led the charge as ODU posted eight TFL’s and generated sufficient pressure on Walley. Eriq Lewis’ interception to end the first quarter came as Walley was flushed from the pocket. Coach Bobby Wilder credited the line for executing the Monarchs’ defensive plan.
“The game plan on defense was to force them to run the ball,” Wilder said. “They’re as good as any we played with their screens. We were able to get pressure with the front four.” Two defensive linemen also made an impact on special teams (see below).
Red Zone Scoring
The Monarchs entered Saturday’s game averaging 4.3 red zone possessions per game, and led the CAA with an 87% conversion rate. Conversely NSU finished second in the MEAC by allowing scores on only 68% of opponents’ red zone possessions.
Against the Spartans, Old Dominion reached the red zone five times and scored on four of them (one second-quarter drive ended in a missed field goal). Four of Heinicke’s touchdowns came inside the red zone, and he gave credit to his receivers after the game.
“With the receivers we have, they’re very and very smart. We feel like we can do anything with them,” Heinicke said. “They (Norfolk State) played a lot of man-coverage, so I thought our receivers had an advantage with that.”
Special Teams Play
Towards the end of the season, Coach Wilder stated repeatedly that no one had seen the last of Thomas DeMarco. Against Norfolk State, the senior quarterback executed a key play that sparked the Monarchs to the win.
With the score tied 7-7 late in the first quarter, an ODU possession stalled near midfield. DeMarco lined up with the punt squad on fourth down, took the snap and completed a pass to Antonio Vaughan for a first down. Four plays later, the Monarchs scored a touchdown and took a lead they would not relinquish.
In addition to the fake punt, defensive linemen Chris Burnette and Edmon McClam each blocked NSU field goal attempts. Burnette’s block came in the second quarter, and allowed ODU to take a 21-7 lead at halftime. McClam’s block came on NSU’s first possession of the second half, helping the Monarchs maintain that same score. Old Dominion scored a touchdown on its subsequent possession, effectively putting the game out of each.
Following its win over Norfolk State, the Monarchs travel to Georgia Southern to battle the third-seeded Eagles Saturday. The team from Statesboro, GA, was ranked #1 in FCS for much of the season, and their triple-option offense will pose a unique problem for the Monarchs.
“Georgia Southern presents a major challenge,” Wilder said. “But this football loves a big challenge.”