It's been almost two full weeks since the blog's last post. We've provided a good amount of information (see below) but all the writing for other sites has limited what I can write for my own blog. We have a couple non-ODU football items to provide first.
Old Dominion's field hockey team is currently the #1 team in the nation after beating its seventh top ten team in its first ten games. If they hadn't received all first place votes in the latest vote, there should have been an investigation.
Justin Verlander is now 24-5 after getting a win in his 13th consecutive start. There is debate whether he should be considered for the AL MVP.
I've had a few stories shared on CAAZone.com and SaturdayBlitz.com. It is an honor to write for these sites so I share these links in a very humble fashion. On behalf of the CAAZone I was granted a press pass for ODU's home game against Hampton this past Saturday. You can read the preview here and the game summary here. It's been a pleasure being on a team of strong writers for the Zone.
For SaturdayBlitz.com I've shared my thoughts in the FCS Roundtable for a few weeks recently. Even if you don't want to read more of my own work on the site, you're exposed to different writers who are well-versed in FCS football. I also provided previews of weeks two and three of CAA Football. I also composed a well-received piece on Towson's win over Villanova, or at least so says the site's awesome owner. I am thankful to Kyle for giving me the opportunity to write for his site.
With that said, it's time to analyze Old Dominion football's performance against its three non-conference opponents. In the blog's season preview, it was predicted that the Monarchs would go 3-0 so expectations have been met. But the level of competition steps up significantly starting this weekend. We'll be there in Newark, Delaware, to see ODU take on the 2010 FCS runner-up Blue Hens.
NOTE: All statistics referenced come from ODU Sports's official website as of 9/21/2011. Clicking on this link after 9/24/2011 will result in altered statistics.
The production of any offense begins and ends with the big men up front. Against inferior competition, Old Dominion's offense has racked up an average of 435 yards per game. Quarterback Thomas DeMarco has been sacked five times, but it's generally been a result of holding onto the ball too long. He has had adequate time to look down the field when needed; there have been few missed assignments.
More important than its play in the passing game, the line has opened up holes regularly for Monarch running backs. Sophomore Colby Goodwyn leads Old Dominion with 263 net rushing yards despite missing the first game against Campbell. He is followed by redshirt freshman Angus Harper, who has 206. The tandem has scored five touchdowns.
It's hard to assess how the offensive line will perform against CAA teams. They held their own against the top 25 teams they opposed in 2010 (Cal-Poly and William and Mary) but have not faced such competition on a weekly basis. At the very least it's clear that they are better than non-CAA teams at this point.
Thomas DeMarco has been exactly what the team has needed - an experienced quarterback who executes the offense. The version of the spread offense ODU runs with DeMarco is based on rush attempts and short passes, which set up moderate-and-deep passes. The senior quarterback has been good with his decisions this season, completing more than 70% of his passes with two interceptions. He has thrown for three touchdowns and rushed for another five, giving him 30 rushing touchdowns in 25 career games.
More important than his passing abilities is his ability to scramble. In the last two seasons, he has faced defenses vastly inferior to CAA-caliber teams. In the past he had chosen to dive head-first and fight for extra yardage as much as possible. On two separate scrambles from the pocket this season, he has slid feet-first. To non-ODU fans this may be insignificant, but considering his size and how good CAA defenses are, it's encouraging to see him consciously decide to limit the hits he takes early in the season.
In the season-opener against Campbell, the Monarchs dressed only one scholarship athlete (Angus Harper) at running back. The team had nine designed rushes prior to WR Antonio Vaughan's reverse that he took 30 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Once the lead was fairly secure, ODU went with walk-on reserve Lorenzo Smith; Harper had only ten total rushes (with seven receptions) in the game.
After gaining only 50 net rushing yards against Campbell, the Monarchs exploded for almost 290 yards against Georgia State. The Panthers showed eight-man secondaries on most plays, so ODU simply ran the ball. Colby rushed for 184 yards on 24 carries with a long of 53. Harper chipped in 67 of his own on 16 carries. Against Hampton it was Harper leading the way with 111 yards while Goodwyn complemented the offense with 79 of his own.
The way the backs are playing compared to last season, there is an obvious upgrade in the talent of Harper/Goodwyn versus last season's corps of Mario Crawford/Goodwyn/Jamar Parham. But there are no other scholarhips running backs on the roster this season except Rashad Manley, a reserve quarterback last season.
Should Harper or Goodwyn miss significant time this season, it will drastically hinder ODU's offensive gameplan. True freshman Tyree Lee, the 2010 AP Virginia High School POY, continues to rehab an ankle injury and hopefully can save a year of eligibility at this point.
If there's been one breakout star for ODU's offense, it has been redshirt freshman Antonio Vaughan. He had 97 receiving yards against Campbell along with his 30 yard touchdown run. Junior Reid Evans continues to be as productive and consistent as ever in his ODU career, contributing eleven receptions and a touchdown. Six Monarchs (including Harper and tight end Kai Blanco) have at least six catches, led by Vaughan's 15.
As discussed above, Old Dominion's offense is predicated on short passes that get the ball to wide receivers as quickly as possible, which sets up deeper passes through the course of the game. Vaughan and Prentice Gill are capable of gaining chunks or yards at a time. But the true key to the passing game is that DeMarco spreads the ball around; in any game, there are four receivers (Evans, Gill, Vaughan, and Larry Pinkard) who could lead the team in receptions any given game based on ODU'S play-calling and the opposition's defensive alignment.
If there is one unit on ODU's football team that is most-ready for conference play, it is the defensive line. Linemen Ronnie Cameron and Chad King are second and third, respectively, in total tackles. Cameron, King and Edmon McClam have contributed seven of ODU's twelve sacks through the first three games. While no OOC opponent has a CAA-caliber offensive line, these three seniors have more than earned their keep.
The team has twelve tackles-for-loss (not including sacks) through three games to date. Although not all TFL were recorded by linemen, the play of the line has allowed opposing offenses to average less than 100 rushing yards per game. Cameron et al have generated penetration at the point of attack, allowing the other defensive units to focus on their own responsibilities.
Craig Wilkins leads the team in total tackles with 32 (20 solo). He's also pitched in two passes defensed and a QB hit. Wilkins could start for any CAA team. Monarch fans expected such output from Wilkins; it is the play of others that was a cause for concern. Last season's starting middle linebacker did not return in 2011, meaning the team would rely heavily on juniors John Darr and Alex Arain.
Both had shown promise in the past but had limited opportunities, so their production was a question mark for this season. The duo has contributed 22 total tackles, three TFL and one pass defensed. Although they may not be play-makers of Wilkins' ability, they have more than earned their spots as starting linebackers.
Old Dominion's defense had seven total interceptions in 2010, only four of which were by defensive backs. Already this season the Monarchs have four interceptions - all by defensive backs. Three of the interceptions came against Georgia State, which started its first string punter against the Monarchs and put in its first string QB only at the end of the third quarter. (For those interested in background on this odd occurrence, visit PantherTalk.com and search for keywords "Bo Schlechter," "Drew Little" or "Kelton Hill." The collective story involves stolen laptops, dropped felony burglary charges and four-game suspensions that lasted all of zero games.)
Unfortunately for ODU, two-year starter TJ Cowart broke his wrist against the Panthers, thus ending his season. Cowart was the most important starter in the secondary, and arguably the team's best defender after Cameron. The second starting cornerback position was won in camp by RS freshman Eriq Lewis after a fierce competition. He battled true sophomore Aaron Evans, RS sophomore Markell Wilkins and true freshman Reggie Owens to win the position. Going forward it will be difficult for these corners to battle CAA-caliber receivers for eight straight games without Cowart leading the way; these individuals are talented but are currently not the most-tested unit of the team.
The safety position has excelled to date. Sophomore Paul Morant has led the way with eleven tackles, one interception with three passes defensed. Devon Simmons and Carvin Powell have added 20 tackles, two interceptions and two passes defensed. But Morant has been the star of the unit, as his INT and two blocked punts have led to three touchdowns.
Consistent with its first two seasons, Old Dominion's special teams unit has been a key contributor to the success in 2011 OOC schedule. Kicker Jarod Brown has connected on all five field goal attempts, including attempts of 51-and-45 yards in the Georgia Dome in Week Two. Just as impressively, Brown connected on a FG of 42 yards against Hampton in the rainy, windy conditions; the young man is as reliable as can be expected of FCS kickers.
The punting unit has also excelled. After leading the FCS in punting average in 2009, Jonathan Plisco was 0.05 yards per attempt at leading FCS punters in 2010. Last year he averaged more than five yards per attempt than 2011 Preseason All-CAA Punter David Skahn of James Madison. (We understand why CAA coaches and SID's would not vote ODU position players to the Preseason All-CAA team, but it looks silly when one punter was five yards better per attempt than the guy who was voted to the preseason team.) In 15 attempts this season, Plisco has averaged more than 46 yards per attempt with a long of 61 against the Panthers.
For those unaccustomed to watching the Monarchs, DeMarco is a weapon on special teams. If ODU faces fourth-and-short between the 50 and the opponents' 37/38 yard line, and the Monarchs have their base offense on the field, the opposing team can expect a pooch punt from DeMarco. Two of his three punts this season were placed inside the opponents' 20.
If there's one area of concern for Old Dominion's special teams, it is the kickoff unit. The Monarchs did a good job against Georgia State but gave up multiple returns of at least 30 yards against Campbell and Hampton. The Campbell Camels were not able to take advantage of the field position like the Pirates did, but even Hampton's offense is not as good as most in the CAA. No Colonial defense can regularly prevent opponents from scoring when the starting field position is around the 40 yard line.
It has benefited the third-year program to have a head coach that was both a player and assistant head coach in the league previously (Bobby Wilder was both with Maine). In his postgame press conference against Hampton, he repeated that the team responded well to getting punched in the mouth against Hampton; the team should expected to get punched in the mouth weekly in conference play. How the team responds will determine how successful the team can be.
One sign of well-coached teams is the play of special teams. Against Hampton in 2010, Wilder saw something specific about the Pirates' punt shield that the Monarchs could exploit; the net result was two blocked punts and a tackle of the punter before he could get away a third punt away. Against Georgia State and Hampton this season, ODU had three blocked punts in two weeks. Two of these blocks were returned directly for touchdowns while another was quickly turned into a DeMarco-to-Evans touchdown pass.
Beyond special teams, it seems that Monarch coaches have game-planned appropriately for its opponents this season. Harper, the only one scholarship running back available against Campbell, ran the ball only ten times that game. Despite leading most of the game, ODU quarterbacks attempted 43 passes against 36 rush attempts. The next two weeks, the Monarchs rushed for 286 and 216 yards, showing the Campbell game was an anomoly rather than a long-term concern.
Old Dominion is 3-0 to start the 2011 football season. It currently has an eight-game winning streak dating back to last season, the longest current FCS streak. In the streak, ODU has soundly beaten Georgia State twice, Hampton twice (one game was closer than the other), VMI, Savannah State, North Carolina Central and Campbell. The Monarchs have used team speed, coaching and overall talent to defeat these teams.
But none of the opponents played in that streak have the collective, proven talent that Delaware has on its roster. Monarch fans should temper expectations for this weekend and most other CAA games. It's going to be a long ride, but the Monarchs have shown to be talented enough to at least compete with teams such as William & Mary and Cal-Poly in the past. How does this translate to eight consecutive games against the best FCS conference? We're excited to find out.