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.

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