Old Dominion played its first road game of 2011 in the state of Georgia in Week Two. Traveling to Atlanta to battle a fellow start-up program, ODU defeated the Georgia State Panthers, 40-17. This Saturday Old Dominion (10-2) returns to Georgia to continue its season seeking the program’s first road playoff game.
Whereas the Monarchs’ first road game this year came against a team in its infancy, their first road playoff game is against the most successful team in the history of FCS. The third-seeded Georgia Southern Eagles have won more national titles (six) and playoff games (41) than any other program.
In 2011 Georgia Southern returned 20 starters from last year’s semi-finalist team. The Eagles have been ranked at or near the top of FCS polls all season; its two losses were on the road at Appalachian State and the University of Alabama. Georgia Southern finished 9-2 and won their first Southern Conference title since 2004.
While GSU enjoyed a bye week Saturday, Old Dominion enters the game following a 35-18 win over Norfolk State. Freshman sensation Taylor Heinicke, who himself hails from Atlanta, completed 70% of his passes for 269 yards and five touchdowns. The Monarchs led 35-10 until NSU scored a touchdown with three minutes remaining.
The teams reached the playoffs with vastly different offensive schemes. Georgia Southern runs the triple-option offense and attempted only 109 passes in eleven games. Old Dominion employs the spread offense that frequently puts four (if not five) wideouts on the field. Despite the contrast in style, the teams were remarkably close in production – the Eagles outscored the Monarchs 395-394 during the regular season.
Old Dominion must be successful in the following areas in order to defeat Georgia Southern.
Discipline on Defense
The Monarchs were second in the CAA in both rushing yards allowed (122.5 yards/game) and yards per attempt (3.2) during the regular season. Old Dominion averaged 4.5 tackles-for-loss on designed rush attempts per game. Against NSU they allowed 43 yards on 28 attempts, though a botched snap did result in a minus-22 “team rush” attempt. All-CAA First Teamers Ronnie Cameron and Craig Wilkins lead the team with 16 and 14.5 TFL’s, respectively.
However, the Monarchs have yet to face a team with Georgia Southern’s rushing abilities. The Eagles averaged more than 54 rush attempts per game. Six different players averaged at least 29 rushing yards per game, led by Robert Brown (75.8/game) and the SoCon’s Co-Freshman of the Year, Dominique Swoop (59.1/game). The Monarchs must remain disciplined in their individual assignments against GSU, which rushed for more yards against Alabama (302) than any Crimson Tide opponent had since 2004.
Old Dominion finished the regular season with the CAA’s best turnover margin at plus-ten, and was plus-two against Norfolk State. Since Heinicke took over as starting quarterback in Week Six, the Monarchs lost the only game in which they lost the turnover battle (minus-one, against Towson). In his seven starts to date, Heinicke has 20 touchdowns against one interception and one fumble.
The Eagles themselves finished with a plus-four turnover ratio. The SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year, nose tackle Brent Russell, leads a GSU defense that forced 19 turnovers this year. Cornerbacks Laron Scott and Hudson Presume led the Eagles with three interceptions each, and will rely on Russell and the line to pressure Heinicke into mistakes.
The Eagles may be ODU’s first opponent to date whose kicking game matches their own. Laron Scott was named SoCon’s First Team Kick Return Specialist. The senior led the SoCon with an average of 33.4 yards per kickoff return and had two returns for touchdowns. The Eagles also got an All-SoCon performance from placekicker Adrian Mora, who led the conference in field goal percentage (92.3%) and connected on all 51 extra point attempts.
But special teams have played a significant role in several of ODU’s wins this season. Including their two blocked field goals against NSU Saturday, the Monarchs have blocked ten kicks in twelve games. Jonathan Plisco was voted First Team All-CAA punter with his average of 46.1 yards per attempts in the regular season. The junior averaged 46.7 yards on three punts Saturday, and has 20 punts of at least 50 yards.
One qualitative factor that will impact the game is crowd noise. The largest crowd Heinicke faced on the road this season was at William and Mary (12,259). Even in Williamsburg, though, ODU fans comprised a large portion of that figure. Offensive plays are communicated using signals, so the crowd noise should not impact the offense before the snap.
But something must be said for GSU’s home crowd. Georgia Southern finished the season seventh in attendance at 19,249/game, and its fans have a sense of pride for its storied program. And if there’s one team whose fans should know about making noise at home playoff games, it is the team with the most success in FCS playoff history.