Friday, December 30, 2011

Winding Down ODU's OOC Play

I was all set to drive to Norfolk today to cover Old Dominion’s game against Missouri for the Zone.  But this morning my car acted up and I’m now sitting at the dealer instead while they fix it.  Thankfully I have my laptop and game notes so I can keep myself busy. 

We’re going to review ODU men’s basketball season to date in a second, but we have a few things to share first.  To start us off, Drew Brees knocked a Miami Dolphins quarterback out of the record books.  While as a Bills fan I fully disclose my irrational bias against all-things-Dolphins, this made me a happy guy to see someone break the record.

Rich Radford of The Virginian-Pilot is composing a series of articles discussing where ODU football stands heading into the 2012 season.  You can read his assessment of the offensive line by clicking here.  I’ll hopefully get to my own analysis of the 2011 season within the next few weeks.  Radford and David Fairbank of The Daily Press did a fantastic job covering ODU football this year.

And now we’ll shift gears to the ODU Monarchs basketball team. 

Blaine Taylor’s team has won half of its first dozen games this season, including a win in its only conference game to date.  Although the record may be a disappointment considering last season’s 9-3 start, the drop-off should not be a surprise.

Three of the four seniors who graduated from last year’s 27-7 team (Ben Finney, Frank Hassell and Darius James) finished literally at the top of the list in career games played by a Monarch; the fourth (Keyon Carter) finished 13th.  That is more than a little experience to replace.

Although this year’s squad also has four seniors on the roster, the quartet had not regularly been put into the leadership role with Finney et al on the team.  It’s not a matter of talent – among the seniors is Kent Bazemore, the 2012 Preseason CAA Player of the Year.  The difference has been that outside of Bazemore, they haven’t been on the floor as more than role players prior to this season.

The prime example of the seniors’ lack of game experience came in overtime against Vermont.  After the Catamounts went up by two points late in OT, Marquel De Lancey brought the ball up the court.  Immediately after passing the timeline, he picked up his dribble with his back to the basket.  He turned to his right to hand the ball off to Bazemore; however, he failed to recognize that the person beside him was not Bazmore but in fact a defender.  Vermont easily took away the ball and went on to win the game. 

That is simply not a play an experienced player would make.  While De Lancey’s a senior who has made his contributions over the years, I cannot recall him ever being on the court in such an in-game situation.  That was a learning experience not afforded the senior until this year. 

None of this is meant to sound like criticism or that the team is having a bad season to date.  Bazemore has averaged more than 13 points and almost five rebounds per game; fellow senior Chris Cooper nearly averages a double-double; and redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten averages ten points on 42.6% shooting. 

In reality there was more adversity from the preseason than I can remember for any recent ODU team.  Consider:

·         The offseason started in heart-breaking manner, as Butler scored as the clock expired to defeat the Monarchs by two points in NCAA tournament.  This was cruelly ironic since the final points came from an offensive rebound against the nationa's best rebounding team.
·         Rising sophomore Josh Hicks left the program.
·         Bazemore had offseason surgery on his foot, though he came back for the start of the season when he wasn’t expected back until December.
·         Nick Wright was suspended the first three games of the season.
·         Richard Ross and Donte Hill were ineligible for the first semester of the season.

It speaks well of Coach Taylor’s ability to have this team at 6-6 considering (1) what was lost to graduation and (2) the roster was incomplete until the tenth game of the season.  Even in most losses, the team has done relatively well.  The Monarchs went toe-to-toe with #2 Kentucky in late November until losing 62-52.  Coming off consecutive losses, ODU took a good Richmond team to overtime on the road before losing 90-82.  That’s not even mentioning its overtime win over South Florida or its first conference win, on the road at Northeastern. 

With the above in mind, it is difficult to judge the ups-and-downs of this season accurately.  With a full complement of players from the very start of the offseason, the Monarchs might have been able to beat Fairfield and/or Vermont.  But it’s of no use to make such speculations. 

The one good thing that writers smarter than I am have noted in the past – Blaine Taylor-coached teams play their best ball in February.  Bazemore should only get better as his conditioning improves.  Ross comes in immediately to provide supreme athleticism and hustle.  Trian Iliadis is too good a shooter to continue hitting on only 21.6% of his three-pointers; he hit two of five three’s last week against VMI.  And in general, the team-defense will continue to improve as it plays more games together. 

Some superlatives of note:

Team MVP – Chris Cooper.  As noted above, the senior from Dumfries, VA, averages nearly a double-double at 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.  Cooper led the way against Kentucky, posting 17 points with 12 boards and essentially pushing the Wildcats around.  He gets the nod over Bazemore for how the team’s performance changes when he’s not on the floor.  The senior has fouled out in four of the team’s twelve games, and the Monarchs are clearly a better team when he hasn’t been in foul trouble.

Best Team Performance – At Northeastern University.  Road wins in CAA conference-play are treasured, and this game showed the potential of the team.  Cooper chipped in another 17-12; Bazemore added 21 points, eight rebounds and three assists; and Nick Wright scored a dozen points.  Iliadis had a good all-around game with seven points, five assists and two rebounds. 

Worst Team Performance – Against Vermont.  The Monarchs looked like the better team much of the first half and took a 30-24 lead into the half.  But Cooper was in foul trouble, and no one other than Wright could score in the second half – almost literally.  For the game the junior forward provided 24 points and ten rebounds on 9-12 shooting, much of which came after halftime.  The rest of the team hit 13 of 53 shots (24.5%), which includes only six of 38 by the four seniors.  Lastly, the team hit only three of 18 three-point attempts.  They got out to a comfortable lead, but then played like a team still learning how to win.

Best Individual Performance – Nick Wright.  As mentioned above, Wright was the go-to guy for Old Dominion against Vermont.  Anyone who watched him his first two years knew that the young man provides energy, defense and rebounding.  But he had never showed such offensive prowess before this game.  The 24 points tripled his previous career high of eight (accomplished twice).  He converted two late free throws to force overtime.  Honorable mention goes to Batten for his play against East Carolina, in which he scored 18 points and posted nine rebounds as a guard.

Good Times along Hampton Boulevard.  Monarch fans deserve recognition themselves.  Last season, ODU’s average attendance was 7,745; this broke the previous record of 7,492 more than 30 years prior.  This season the average attendance is down a bit but still strong at 7,312.  This figure should rise with expected sellouts when Missouri and the CAA rivals come to town.  Virginia Commonwealth leads the conference with 7,631 fans per game; the next-closest average to ODU is George Mason (3,782).  Considering this year’s high attendance follows a season in which 19,818 saw seven Monarch football games (a sellout in each game), ODU fans should take a bow for their overall support.

Keys to CAA Play.  There are three keys for Old Dominion to succeed as the conference schedule starts in full-swing.  The good news for the Monarchs is that most other teams have shown vulnerabilities this season.  The only 2011-2012 team that comes close to last year’s ODU/GMU/VCU/Hofstra group is VCU, although Drexel has played exceptionally well since Chris Fouch returned to the rotation and got into a groove.

1.       Improved outside shooting.  Last year the Monarchs hit 32.9% of their three-point attempts, which is on the low-side.  Old Dominion made up for its outside shooting, though, as it led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-11.7).  This year ODU is shooting worse (26.7% of their three’s) and is not as good of a rebounding unit (fifth in the conference at plus-3.1).  The presence of Ross should help improve the rebounding margin but he has not displayed a consistent outside shot.  (Mind you, he’s played only three games.)  The team needs Iliadis (11 of 51 3’s) and Bazemore (14 of 61) to improve their low rates from outside.

2.       Cooper’s Presence.  Blaine Taylor has shown an ability to recruit and coach post players who produced at a high level.  Chris Cooper follows Frank Hassell, who followed Gerald Lee, who followed Valdas Vasylius and Arnaud Dahi, who followed Alex Loughton.  In out-of-conference play, Cooper has displayed the skills to at least be mentioned with those players.  However, he fouls out once every three games (he currently average 3.8 fouls/game) and the team’s next post option is Nick Wright.  While Wright has produced this season, he does not have the physical presence of Cooper.  Jason Pimentel showed potential early as well, but he has not played the last three contests.  The less Cooper is in foul trouble, the more the Monarchs will win.

3.       The Play of the Newcomers.  If Batten ends the season at his current average of 10.0 PPG, it would be the highest average for a freshman Monarch under Blaine Taylor.  Dahi holds that honor as he finished with 9.0 PPG in the ’03-’04 season.  Coach Taylor acknowledged that Ross led the team in hustle plays his very first game (against Central Florida).  Hill adds another threat on the wings to take the pressure off Bazemore and averages more than six PPG.  While Batten must continue his strong play, Ross and Hill must assert their talents into the team without unbalancing the team’s chemistry on the court.  Nine games is a long time for the other players on the roster to familiarize themselves with each other in the flow of a game.

In the last five years, Old Dominion has finished seasons with win totals of 27 (twice), 25 and 24.  The outlier in that stretch was ’07-’08, when the team finished 18-16.  That year’s senior class included Drew Williamson, Brandon Johnson and Brian Henderson.  Will this team finish with at least 20 wins?  The talent is there.  The key is how well the individual talent can meld now that it's finally been combined.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Catching up on CAA Basketball

After a season of covering CAA football for and, I have the honor of covering CAA basketball for the rest of the season.  Now that college football is essentially over, it’s time to start following college basketball full-time.

While I followed the first month of college basketball, it was admittedly a view from afar.  Between work, family, traveling and football, my time to actually watch basketball was limited in November and early December.  I got to watch games involving ODU, UNCW and George Mason on TV but I was mostly relegated to reading game stories and box scores.

I preface this blog post with the above information so the reader understands the purpose of this post – to catch up a bit on CAA teams by analyzing detailed statistics.  It’s also a good time to do so as the non-conference schedules are mostly completed.  Statistics can tell a story that may not fully reflect reality, but there's only so much basketball I could watch until now.

I’ve seen only three games in person – two at Towson and one at Drexel.  However, I’ll get to attend one game every weekend until the CAA tournament, when I’ll be there for at least the quarter-and-semi-final rounds.  So what can be learned from reviewing statistics? 

University of Delaware (5-5, 1-0)

·        The Blue Hens have maintained their starting rotation most of the season – four players have started all ten games, while a fifth has started eight.  One of those four starters is Devon Saddler, last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year.  Saddler is second in the conference with an average of 20.2 points per game.
·        Two starters are hitting more than 56% of their shots – Josh Brinkley (56.5%) and Jamelle Hagins (56.3%).  Hagins averages a double-double with 14.3 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.

Drexel University (6-4, 0-1)

·        Drexel is out-rebounding its opponents 35.2 to 31.6 per game.  They’ve accomplished this as a team rather than relying on one individual; four players average between 5.3-6.8 rebounds per game. 
·        The Dragons are one of three CAA teams with more assists than turnovers (Georgia State and Virginia Commonwealth are the others).  Three guards – Frantz Massenat, Damion Lee and Chris Fouch – have 68 assists against 44 turnovers.
·        Four players average double figures in points, led by Massenat’s 13.1 per game.

George Mason University (8-4, 1-0)

·        Paul Hewitt has made sure the right Patriots are taking the most shots.  The four players with the most shot attempts are also among their top five in shooting percentage.  Ryan Pearson leads the team in attempts (149) and shots made (82); he is also second in shooting percentage (55.0%).
·        Two of the conference’s top five shot blockers play for George Mason – Erik Copes (third with 2.3 blocks/game) and Mike Morrison (fifth with 1.8/game). 
·        Bryon Allen and Corey Edwards have connected on a combined four of 33 three point attempts (12.1%).  The rest of the team has hit 49 of 129 (38.0%) treys.  Allen has made 31 of 56 two pointers (55.4%).

Georgia State University (9-3, 1-0)

·        The only stat that matters – the Panthers’ win this week over rival Georgia Southern established the program’s longest winning streak at nine (and counting). 
·        Eric Bucker leads the CAA in blocked shots; he has blocked more shots (36) than he has committed personal fouls (31).
·        New coach Ron Hunter already has Georgia State playing at his preferred fast pace.  Five Panthers have double-digit steals, led by Devonta White’s 22; three Panthers are in the top ten in steals per game in the conference.

Hofstra University (5-7, 0-1)

·        The Pride have hit 58 of 151 three pointers as a team (38.4%).  Mike Moore has taken 70 of those 151 attempts, converting on 32 of them (45.7%).
·        Dwan McMillan leads the team with 54 assists, and has committed 30 turnovers.  All other Hofstra players have registered 80 assists against 149 turnovers.
·        Nathaniel Lester started the season on a high note, scoring 33 points against Long Island University.  Since then he has scored 117 points (10.6 points/game).

James Madison University (6-3, 1-0)

·        AJ Davis leads the conference by hitting 47.8% of his three pointers; Humpty Hitchens is third with a rate of 45.3%.  These two have attempted exactly half (99 of 198) of the team’s three point shots.
·        Either Davis or Hitchens have led JMU every game in scoring, though Julius Wells did tie Hitchens with twelve points against the Citadel.
·        The Dukes have played their opponents to a virtual draw in turnovers, committing one fewer than the teams they’ve played (126 against 127).  They and their opponents also have exactly the same number of assists (122).

Northeastern University (3-7, 0-1)

·        Three players have started all ten games to date, and two others have started six of them.  Of these five players, only Jonathan Lee has more assists than turnovers (37 to 32).
·        Northeastern is fifth in the conference in free throw percentage at 69.3%.  Joel Smith has converted on 21 of 22 free throw attempts (95.5%).  All other Huskies are a combined 119 of 180 (66.1%). 
·        The Huskies are out-rebounding their opponents 37.0 – 33.9 per game.  Similarly to Drexel, they are doing this as a team effort; five players average between 4.4 and 5.5 rebounds per game and a sixth averages almost four.

Old Dominion University (6-6, 1-0)

·        No Monarch has started every game this season.  Chris Cooper had started every game until ODU’s win over VMI this week.
·        Redshirt freshman Dimitri Batten currently averages 10.0 points per game.  The freshman with the highest PPG average in Blaine Taylor’s tenure in Norfolk is Arnaud Dahi (9.0) in 2003-2004.
·        After leading the country in rebounding margin last season (plus-11.7), the Monarchs are only fifth in their own conference this season (plus-3.1).  Cooper’s 50 offensive rebounds are double the next-closest Monarch (Nick Wright, with 25).

Towson University (0-12, 0-1)

·        Robert Nwankwo has grabbed more offensive rebounds (53) than defensive rebounds (52).  The senior post player is fourth in the conference with 1.9 blocks per game, and similarly to Buckner has more blocks (23) than personal fouls (20).
·        While nine CAA teams have more turnovers than assists, the Tigers are by far the most careless with the ball.  Their turnover margin is a conference-worst minus-9.83; the next closest is the College of William and Mary (minus-5.75).
·        A large part of Towson’s struggles is their lack of experience in the program.  Along with employing a first-year coach, the team returned only one letterman from last year’s team.  One sophomore (Marcus Damas) and two freshmen (Kris Walden and Deon Jones) have started all twelve games.

University of North Carolina – Wilmington (3-7, 0-1)

·        Freshman Adam Smith is fifth in the conference in scoring (17.0 PPG).  The next-closest freshman is Drexel’s Damion Lee, who is 15th (12.4 PPG).
·        Either Keith Rendleman (five times) or Smith (four times) has led the team in scoring in nine of the team’s ten games.  Rendleman has also led the team in rebounding in eight games and averages a double-double for the season (14.3 PPG, 10.1 RPG).
·        The Seahawks are out-rebounding their opponents 36.6 – 35.9 per game.  While Drexel and Northeastern do so with a gang-rebounding mindset, UNCW has only three players who average more than three rebounds.

Virginia Commonwealth University (9-3, 1-0)

·        The Rams lead the conference with an average turnover margin of plus-6.5, forcing 220 turnovers against just 144 of their own. 
·        VCU averages just over eight more FG attempts per game than their opponents (684 against 587 in total).  More than 38% of their shots (263 of 684) are three-point attempts, and they are third in the conference in three-point percentage (35.0%).
·        Riding the momentum of their Final Four appearance last season, the Rams lead the conference in average attendance at 7,631 fans per game.  While ODU’s attendance is close (7,312/game), VCU’s average more than doubles the third-highest average attendance to date (3,782 by George Mason).

The College of William and Mary (2-10, 0-1)

·        In its twelve games, no Tribe player has reached double-digits in rebounds.  Kendrix Brown is the only W&M player to reach nine.
·        Tim Rusthoven has played only six of his team’s twelve games, but leads the team with 17 total offensive rebounds.  His average of 6.3 rebounds per game also leads the team.
·        Seven different players have played all twelve games to date.  Among them, all but Marcus Thornton have started at least four games; Thornton has yet to start a single game.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tennessee at Buffalo: Being a Bills Fan Is Getting Harder

In honor of Beavis and Butt-head: "Uhhh...he said 'getting harder.'"  Huh huh...

We’ll get to the Bills in a moment.  First I want to share a few links.  This entire blog entry is as disjointed as my recent feeling as a Bills fan have become. 

On the bright side, I should have more time to devote to my blog, now that football season is winding down.  We’ll review Old Dominion football’s third season of existence over the holidays.  The season ended with a loss in the playoffs, but to be frank I wouldn’t have bet on a winning season.  I am glad I was very, very wrong: my best-case scenario had the team winning eight games.  They would go on to win ten (nine in the regular season).

I provided a preview of last week’s quarterfinal round of the FCS playoffs.  (I am not too humble to point out that I went four-for-four in my predictions of the games.)  You can also read my preview of Sam Houston State this weekend against Montana.

With football season over for the Monarchs, I am focusing more on basketball.  I’m attending one game every Saturday the rest of the regular season, and will attend at least part of the CAA tournament in March.  You can read my summary of Towson’s loss to UMBC by clicking on the link.

Now that I’m done pimping my stuff for other sites, let’s review Buffalo’s game against Tennessee.  They lost.  The Bills were down by two scores most of the game, and the Titans held on late to win, 23-17.  Chris Johnson continued his outstanding play (at the time) against a Buffalo defense that’s weak against the run.

I could go into a long analysis of the game but the tune this season is a familiar one, even when the Bills were winning early.  Except in a win against the Redskins weeks ago, Buffalo’s defense just hasn’t gotten the job done.  There are individual players who will clearly contribute over the next several years; the problem has been depth.  Deficiencies were masked by come-from-behind victories pulled out by the offense.

When I began writing this post I wanted to go into detail of the team’s defensive woes, but it gave me an idea for another post – examining why Buffalo hasn’t played a playoff game since January 2000.  I can’t do that adequately without doing research, but here are some highlights:

·        Hiring Gregg Williams in 2000 as a head coach when better options were available.
·        Drafting Willis McGahee in the first round in 2002 when the team already had a productive Travis Henry.  (It turns out Henry was certainly productive over the years, just not strictly on the field.)
·        Trading up to draft JP Losman in the 2004 draft after Pittsburgh already picked…Ben Roethlisberger.
o   As an aside, Microsoft’s Word 2010 recognizes “Roethlisberger” as an actual word, whereas it thinks “Losman” is a misspelling of “Lowman.”
·        Hiring Marv Levy as general manager in 2006, who hired Dick Jauron as his head coach.
·        Drafting Donte Whitner in 2006 even though Haloti Ngata was available.  The Bills were adamant about playing the 4-3 “Tampa Two” defense.
·        Drafting Aaron Maybin in 2009.  In the first round.  On purpose.  Even though we were adamant about playing the 4-3 “Tampa Two” defense.  He fit neither the lineman nor linebacker positions in the 4-3 defense.

And now, I am officially depressed.  Mind you, all these items happened between 2000 and 2009...and are issues that happened OFF THE FIELD.  Wait until I spell out how these impacted losses when I examine the worst games of the past decade. 

But we’re going to move on from that and just get to the pictures.  I promise the next post about the Bills will have more oomph to it...probably once the season is over and I can be more objective about ANOTHER YEAR OF NOT MAKING THE PLAYOFFS.

The Jills performed before the game.

Former Bills great Steve Christie waved a flag to pump up the crowd.
Matt Hasselback led the Titans to a score on this opening drive.
McIntyre (38) opened led the way for Choice (30).
Fitzpatrick is the Bills' best QB since Drew Bledsoe in 2002.
Chris Johnson rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns. 
Fitzpatrick is having a better season than his stats (and win/loss record) indicate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Slowing Down for Five Minutes

What a month!  When last we met, we shared the thoughts of a JMU blogger on the football Dukes' matchup with Old Dominion.  Since then, it's been a whirlwind of events.  Lots of traveling!  Too much eating!  The start of college basketball!  Justin Verlander became the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 20-plus years to win the AL MVP!  Gary Cherone's latest CD arrived in the mail!

This football season has flown by.  I spent some time over Thanksgiving organizing the files used for composing word for and  It was a little shocking to see how much I've written.  Time genuinely flies when you're having fun.

This fall I got to report on the start of the revival of Towson; a record-breaking performance; Old Dominion football's rise to its first Top 25 ranking; the first American football event at PPL Park; the first FCS playoff game between teams from the same city; and the aforementioned JMU/ODU game.  I am blessed, humbled and thankful for the opportunity provided to share my voice by multiple outlets.

With all this in mind, this weekend I'm taking a break from watching college football in person by...watching professional football in person.  That's right, it's the annual RV trip to Buffalo this weekend!  All sorts of good times in 30-degree weather over 48 hours outside Ralph Wilson Stadium are had every year.  It'll be a chance to watch a game without thinking analytically about composing a story on the game.  Of course, I'll probably takes lots of pictures and share my thoughts, anyways.

As the college football season wind down, it's time to start turning my attention towards college basketball.  I will again have the pleasure of covering the Colonial Athletic Association for, this time in basketball season.  Thanks to the Ever-Defiant One, I was invited to join the first-ever CAA Bloggers poll.  It's organized by the folks at VCU Ram Nation and incorporates the thoughts of the best mid-major basketball minds...and it also includes mine!  The results of the poll are as follows (first-place votes follow teams' names):

1. Northeastern (3)
2. George Mason (3)
3. VCU (1)
4. Old Dominion
5. JMU
6. Drexel (1)
7. Hofstra
8. Delaware
9. Georgia State
10. UNCW
11. William & Mary
12. Towson

I've decided on a long-term project that will take some time to compose.  I've had thoughts the last few months about how one band, Extreme, has been present in two-thirds of my life.  Long-story short, how many people have ever written about their lives in correlation to the rise, fall and rebirth of a band?  Well, I'm going to dig deep and do it better than anyone else has before.  (That's what SHE said.) 

In closing, here's hoping Old Dominion football continues its amazing third year of existence with a win at Georgia Southern this weekend.  That's the fan in me speaking, not the writer.  I hope I can always keep the two separate. 

Friday, October 28, 2011

ODU Hosts a New, Old Rival

Within 14 hours of this post, Old Dominion University will be hosting the 62nd Annual Oyster Bowl.  We've been busy writing for the CAAZone and, to the point that we haven't posted anything here in three weeks. 

But this weekend's game for ODU is more than just another game.  It pits the Monarchs against potentially the best team it has played in its two-plus seasons.  As a student in the mid/late 90's, I always looked at the Dukes as ODU's biggest rival based on the teams' performance in basketball in early 90's.  Old Dominion has to win some playoff games before it can consider itself to be in anyone's ballpark, but the ingredients for a long-term rivalry are there.

For my assessment of how the ODU/JMU rivalry got to the schools to this point even without a football series, read my post for the Zone here

The fine folks at JMU Sports Blog asked me a series of questions, which I was more than happy to address.  You can read the article at their site.  They were kind enough to answer questions of my own, which are posted below.  You can follow them at Twitter here and their site is definitely worth the read!  Big thanks to the good people who root for the purple.

Go Monarchs!  Hopefully we won't take another three weeks between posts.

1. How has the atmosphere at Bridgeforth this season compared to that prior to the expansion? 
Kind of tough to gauge.  There's no doubt this season in the new stadium has brought incredible excitement, especially among long-time Dukes fans, but everyone's also been just kind of feeling their way as many of us are adjusting to new seats and neighbors.  CCSU and Nova were underwhelming performances ON the field and tough to get excited about in the stands.  UR atmosphere for Homecoming was great for the first half, but JMU pulling away in a steady, cold rain in the second dampened things a bit.  One thing that's been incredible is the student turnout.  JMU now has 8000 student seats and they have filled them each game!  Lots of alums and hardcores like to complain that students always leave early, but 8000 is nearly half the student body and it seems the upgrade in facilities is doing a ton to convince the skeptics among them (many of whom arrive at JMU as nominal VT, UVa, or UNC fans as I'm sure Monarch fans understand) that a Dukes game is more of a big-time event than in years past.  Can't wait to see what the stadium's like for a night game against a rival like App. St. or a home playoff game someday!

2. What has Jace Edwards brought to the offense that is different than what Justin Thorpe did?
Edwards is more of a true QB and Thorpe was more of an outstanding athlete, who just happened to playing QB. Jace is young, but he definitely has helped the passing attack. He's throw a better ball than Thorpe and so far, has made better decisions in the passing game. He clearly works through his progressions and looks for other receivers to throw to if the primary option is covered. Jace was more likely to just tuck it and run if the primary option was covered. As a result, we think the entire offense has become better because it's less predictable.  

3. How has the defense performed compared to last year?  I'm aware most of the starters from last year's squad returned but I'm curious whether it is performing up to 2010's standard.
Actually the strength of our D has been a bit of a misconception among Dukes supporters and opponents this year.  No doubt JMU has a bevy of talent, two-deep in most cases, in the back seven, but I think a lot of folks underestimated how thin the interior of the D-Line was.  The pass-rushers on the edges, notably DJ Bryant, have been held in check more this year as they've been forced to help against the run due to decimating injuries at the tackle spots.  The only game with a fully healthy D-Line was UR, when the Dukes had 7 sacks, but losing Army transfer Nick Emmons has been a blow.
JMU also switched this year from their long-time 4-2-5 formation to a more traditional read-and-react 4-3 and it seems this has led to more soft zone coverage leaving lots of holes to find in the passing game, especially when the pressure doesn't materialize up front.  Our guess here is after the extra time to prep for ODU during the bye, we'll see a bit more of the old 4-2-5 with an extra rusher from different angles.  Watch out for strong games from Bryant and SS/Rover Vidal Nelson.

4. What is your favorite JMU/ODU memory?  Your least favorite?
My favorite JMU/ODU memory is defintely when Kent Culuko hit a 3 at the buzzer to win the CAA tourney and get the Dukes into the dance my freshman year in 1994. My least favorite memory is a tie between practically every single other basketball game between the 2 schools since then. I can't believe we're nearing a 2 decade absence from the NCAA tourney.

5. What is your prediction for this game (and I don't mean in terms of streamers)?  What players other than Thorpe, Scott and Anderson should ODU fans be aware of?
Well, there will be streamers and hopefully plenty of them for JMU touchdowns. We're definitely nervous about this game, but are comforted by the fact that Matthews has had the bye week to prepare. Mickey can definitely make us scratch our heads at times with his in-game decisions, but he typically comes up with good gameplans for big games. We expect that trend to continue this week. Offensively, look for Kerby Long to make some big plays. He was out against Maine and the Dukes definitely missed him. He's dangerous in space with the ball in his hands. Brian Barlow is a big tight end and lots of fans believe he's one of the top 3 or 4 players on the team. Look for Jace to get him the ball early to establish a rhythm. On D, Stephon Robertson is the leader. He'll a big hitter and probably JMU's most consistent tackler. The game is going to be close, but we like JMU's chances, especially if it rains which will only help the rushing attack. JMU 24 - ODU 13.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

ODU Football - Midseason Analysis

(Author's note: this is the experience I wish I could have had when I was a student.)

Old Dominion University's football team is 5-1 through six weeks, including a 2-1 conference record.  Based on how difficult the CAA is in football, this author expected that they'd win two or three conference games overall.  As being a Bills fan has taught the blogger, there's a healthy difference between being a fan with rose-colored glasses compared to looking objectively at your team.  Six wins were expected, and we're almost there already.

Unless the reader counts halftime of Week Six, there's not an exact midpoint of the regular season for the Monarchs, since they play eleven games.  But with six games down and five to go, now makes as much sense as any other to review half a season.  The team will be broken down into the various phases of the team to date, and an attempt to gauge where the team goes from here will be made. 

In full disclosure, this is written from the standpoint a fan who's seen four ODU games in person and a fifth on TV. 

Passing Offense

Through the first six games, Old Dominion quarterbacks have been sacked only ten times.  Generally the protection has been good, as the line has surrendered no more than two sacks in a game.  These results are pretty good considering the team lost the only left tackle it ever knew after Tobin Cameron graduated last season.  The team is also incorporating JUCO transfer David Born into the left guard position. 

Hensley, Duncan and Born have been a key to the Monarchs' success.

The play of the line has allowed ODU quarterbacks to complete 66% of their passes with twelve touchdowns against just six interceptions.  It's odd using the plural version of the term "quarterback" when discussing the Monarchs.  After the first couple games in 2009, Thomas DeMarco has been the lone signal-caller for ODU (save two second-half appearances by Rashad Manley in 2010.) 

Against UMass two weeks ago, DeMarco suffered an ankle injury.  Prior to missing the last six quarters due to the injury, the senior completed 63% of his passes for more than 1,000 yards to go with a 7-5 TD-INT ratio.  As discussed in the blog's preview, DeMarco was not going to have the same success running the ball against CAA defenses as he had the last two years.  In fact it was preferable to rush him on fewer designed runs to keep him as healthy as possible.  So what happens?  He got injured on a designed run against UMass in the second quarter. 

DeMarco was having another typical year (4-1 record) before an ankle injury sidelined him.

In place of DeMarco, Coach Bobby Wilder chose to go with true freshman Taylor Heinicke over JUCO transfer Nate Ong.  The latter apparently has a minor shoulder injury, and Wilder clearly believes the former gives the Monarchs the best chance to win.  Heinicke has delivered, too - he brought the team back from a 26-25 deficit to beat UMass and led ODU to its first CAA road win against Rhode Island.  Through six quarters, the freshman from Georgia has a 79% completion rate and five-to-zero TD-INT ratio.

DeMarco and Heinicke are blessed to have several talented options at WR in the team's quick-pass spread offense.  Four different Monarchs have led the team in receptions in a game, and six players average more than two catches per game.  Junior Reid Evans leads the team with 27 receptions for 297 yards while freshman Larry Pinkard leads the team with four touchdowns through the air. 

Heinicke has completed almost 80% of his passes in six quarters.

The receiving corps has contributed to the team's success in several ways.  Freshman Blair Roberts returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Georgia State.  Pinkard also returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Hampton to help ODU hold off the Pirates.  Jakwail Bailey blocked a UMass punt out of the end zone; the resulting safety put the Monarchs back on top 27-26 in that game.  Antonio Vaughan is second on the team with 400 yards from scrimmage.  Evans is the team's leading punt returner.  Simply put, the receivers are getting it done by more than just catching passes.

Rushing Offense

The rushing attack has been surprisingly effective, considering the challenges it has faced.  Late in summer workouts, Mario Crawford injured his neck.  Thankfully it did not result in paralysis but last year's leading rusher will miss all of 2011.  The next three backs on the depth chart are a sophomore (Colby Goodwyn), a redshirt freshman (Angus Harper) and a true freshman (Tyree Lee). 

Despite the absence of an experienced runner, especially with DeMarco injured, the team has rushed the ball effectively.  The offensive line played exceptionally well against the OOC schedule and has held its own against conference opponents.  The team averaged 214 rushing yards against OOC foes and a respectable 117 against the CAA.

Despite a thinned running back corps, the team has rushed effectively.

Goodwyn leads the team with 356 yards despite missing two games; 184 of those yards came against Georgia State, whose defense is the worst ODU will face.  Harper has pitched in 265 yards while DeMarco leads the team with five rushing scores.  The offense has run on 55% of its plays, and has averaged 4.1 yards per attempt.  The rushing attack is performing admirably considering its youth and changes along the offensive line.

Rushing Defense

The most pleasant surprise of the team has been the play of the defensive line.  Teams are averaging only 2.5 yards per rush attempt after six games.  Ronnie Cameron, Ed McClam and Chad King have terrorized opposing running backs.  Excluding sacks, the team has recorded 26 tackles-for-loss to date.  Cameron leads the way with 8.5 TFL's and is followed by linebacker Craig Wilkins (6.5).  ODU's leader in tackles with 57, Wilkins has played at an All-CAA level this season; he single-handedly tackled Hampton's elusive QB David Legree in the open field at least six times before he did further damage. 

The play against the run is especially encouraging since the team lost its starting middle linebacker from last year.  Wilkins' strong play has been complemented by linebackers JJ Williams (second in tackles), Alex Arain (fifth in tackles with three passes defensed) and John Darr (three TFL's).  The play of the line is allowing these linebackers to make plays of their own, and this unit is clearly better than it was last season.

Wilkins (12) and the defensive line have been dominant at times against the run.

Passing Defense

On a purely statistical basis, the reader might assume that Old Dominion's pass defense has regressed.  In 2010 the team allowed 216 passing yards per game, only 15 passing touchdowns and recorded eight interceptions all season.  To date, this year's team is allowing almost 30 more passing yards per game and has already surrendered eleven touchdown passes. 

But the reader would do well to consider qualitative factors.  First and foremost, the quality of the opponents has increased.  David Legree escaped sacks on countless plays to keep plays alive and complete passes against ODU.  Delaware's Tim Donnelly passed for more than 300 yards against the Monarchs after they gave up trying to move the ball on the ground. 

Paul Morant (20) leads the ODU secondary.

Additionally, the secondary lost a key player when TJ Cowart injured his wrist in Week Two; the injury will cost him the rest of the season.  There are no seniors in the secondary's two-deep roster, either.  But the improvement in the pass rush (more than three sacks per game in 2011 against just 2.6 in 2010) has helped the young core of cornerbacks.  Freshman Eriq Lewis has led the way with ten passes defensed and two interceptions.  Six Monarchs have at least one interception, and the team has already surpassed its 2010 total of interceptions (seven) with eight through six games.  The pass defense has certainly played its part in helping the team to five wins.

Kicking Teams

As mentioned above, the punt blocking unit has been exceptional.  The team has four blocked punts that resulted in three touchdowns and a safety.  That's 20 points (without extra point attempts) derived specifically from coaches identifying weaknesses in ODU's opponents, and the players executing the plays as designed.  The special teams also blocked a field goal against Delaware.  The punt return unit is averaging almost eleven yards per return.  This aspect of the game is consistent with the prior two seasons.

The Monarchs would block this field goal attempt, one of five blocked kicks through six games.

When Old Dominion punts the ball, it knows that it can rely on one of the best punters in all of college football - not just FCS.  Junior Jonathan Plisco is averaging 47 yards per attempt, with half (16 of 32) his kicks going 50-plus yards.  The Monarchs have also downed seven of his punts inside their opponents' 20 yard line.

The kickoff teams are struggling a bit compared to last year.  In 2010, Colby Goodwyn averaged almost 30 yards per kick return.  Against Cal-Poly he set the Division 1 (FBS and FCS) single-game record with 333 yards on kick returns.  This season, the return team has not lived up to that level of play.  With Goodwyn missing two games, Aaron Evans has been the primary returner, leading the team with more than 25 yards per return.  But the team's collective average of 20 yards per return is less than the 2010 average of 25 yards.

If there's one unit that must improve its consistency, it's the kickoff coverage unit.  Although the team allows an average of only 21 yards per return, the unit has shown lapses at times.  It allowed multiple returns of at least 30 yards against Campbell and Hampton, in which the returner simply ran away from the first wave of coverage untouched.  After the Monarchs took a one-point lead late against Delaware, the Monarchs allowed the Hens to take the ensuing kickoff back inside the ODU 40. 

It is encouraging to see the unit improve the last two weeks against UMass and Rhode Island.  The Minutemen have the conference's leading return man (Jesse Julmiste) but the Monarchs kicked directionally away from him; last week ODU allowed only 102 yards on five returns against the Rams.

Jonathan Plisco (31) is having another All-American season.

One Team

So what does it all mean?  The play of both lines was the biggest concern coming into a season with eight CAA opponents on the schedule.  The defensive line has not been pushed around and in fact has done a good job of establishing the line of scrimmage.  On the other side, the offensive line has shown impressive cohesion with a new left side of the line.  It helps that the unit has not experienced the same level of injuries as it did before the 2010 season even began.

It is the author's guess that the offense will rely on the passing game more the next few weeks.  Despite a lack of experience, Heinicke has displayed a level of accuracy and arm strength that DeMarco does not have.  The big question will be, what does Wilder do when DeMarco is fully healthy?  On defense the line will be challenged by run-oriented teams Towson, James Madison, and William and Mary.  But if the front seven continues to perform at its current level, those teams will have their hands full as well.

At 5-1, the Monarchs are clearly better than most fans expected.  All aspects of the team have contributed to the overall success.  This is a sign of both good talent and good coaching.  How this carries into the final five games will decide whether the team gets an invitation to the playoffs in November.

Old Dominion has proven through three conference games that it belongs in the CAA.