Monday, January 9, 2012

ODU Football 2011 Review - Part I

2011 was a landmark season for Old Dominion Football.  More importantly, God bless America.

(Author's disclosure: this is not a short column.  Writing about an entire college football season adequately cannot be accomplished in a couple hundred words!)

I was wrong about Old Dominion University football in 2011.  And I couldn’t be happier about it.

I spent considerable time researching the Monarchs and their opponents this past summer in preparation of the 2011 season, their first in the Colonial Athletic Association.  The summary of my work along with my predictions can be found by clicking on this link.  Let’s review a couple quotes, starting with this one:

“No matter how well the Monarchs performed in their record-setting 9-2 first season, or in their 8-3 sophomore campaign against a tougher schedule without sub-FCS competition, I just don’t see how this team can replicate those records in 2011.  The Colonial Athletic Association finished the 2010 season above two FBS conferences (the MAC and Sun Belt) in the Sagarin ratings.  Five CAA teams have wins over FBS opponents the last two seasons – JMU, W&M, Villanova, UNH and Richmond.  If ODU is simply competitive in its eight conference games, the won/loss record this season will not define the season.”

My assessment was not a based on a disbelief in the Monarchs; it was based on the knowledge of how good the rest of the CAA has been the last decade.  While the Monarchs were competitive against the best teams they faced in 2010 (William and Mary, Cal-Poly), they still didn’t do enough to win those games.  There’s a difference between having faith in one’s team versus being realistic based on known outcomes.

And here’s the second quote to address:

“We’re going to develop a best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and what we actually expect to happen in 2011.  This will be the first post we bring up at the end of the season to review how accurate we were. 

This is what we expect to actually happen.  Old Dominion will go 3-0 out of conference.  The Monarchs get their first CAA win on the road at Rhode Island, and get its second win against Towson at home.  After that they win only one of its final four games (Villanova would be the most likely victory) and finish 6-5.”

I nailed the OOC prediction but undershot the regular season win-total by three.  The Monarchs finished the regular season 9-2, good enough to finish tied with Towson, Maine and New Hampshire atop the CAA.  Due to tie-breakers, Towson finished with the regular season title. 

When the FCS playoffs were announced, the Monarchs were awarded a home game against Norfolk State, champions of the MEAC.  After cruising to a 35-7 lead, they took their collective foot off the gas pedal and won 35-18.  The season ended at Georgia Southern the following week, 55-48; the 48 points they scored tied for the most in a game all season, but the 55 points allowed were also a season high.

There were many twists and turns this season that could be told in linear fashion.  Instead, with this first installment of our review, we’ll analyze how things went through what we determined were the three keys to a successful season.  This affords a different take than just reviewing weekly results, game after game.  Part II will examine superlatives from the season (e.g. MVP, best game, etc.).

3. A Healthy Thomas DeMarco

This aspect is a bit challenging to assess.  Coming into this season, DeMarco had led ODU to 17 wins in its first two seasons.  His two backups were a true freshman (Taylor Heinicke) and a JUCO transfer (Nate Ong), neither of which was with the program in 2010.  Coach Bobby Wilder’s stated goal was to let Heinicke sit out 2011 and compete next year as a redshirt freshman.

DeMarco started off the season doing what he does best, guiding the team to two easy wins against Campbell and Georgia State.  In rainy conditions against Hampton in Week Three, he led the Monarchs to a 45-42 comeback win over the Pirates. 

DeMarco (17) started at QB in the program's first 27 games.

The senior had a more difficult day against Delaware, throwing for only 207 yards 23-of-46 attempts.  While we had previously seen DeMarco miss pretty simple passes on occasion, we had never seen him miss so many in one game.  (This is not a criticism - he seemed to be more hyped for this game than any other we had seen to date.)  If the Monarchs had gotten a normal game from DeMarco, they might have been in better position to win at the end.  The Monarchs even held a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, but the Blue Hens were the better team in the final stanza and won, 27-17.

DeMarco came out with guns blazing the next week against UMass, though.  In just one half he threw for 219 yards and three touchdowns.  However, he suffered an injury after escaping the pocket and was held out of the second half.  Against Campbell, Ong had played in garbage time in the fourth quarter.  So fans could expect to see the JUCO transfer come out for the second half to replace DeMarco and preserve Heinicke's redshirt season…right?

There are certain, specific points in time that define football seasons.  The insertion of Heinicke into the lineup to start the second half against UMass is one of them. 

Despite expecting to sit out the season, Heinicke played extraordinarily well – much better than what could have been expected of a true freshman in his first live action.  He completed eight of eleven passes, two of which went for touchdowns, as Old Dominion went on to win 48-33.  The following week, ODU received its first top 25 ranking in the FCS.

Fast-forwarding to the end of the season, Heinicke completed 68.7% of his passes for 2,385 yards.  If those statistics weren’t good enough to impress the reader, then how about his 25 touchdowns against one interception?  He added 466 yards scrambling (excluding yards lost on sacks) and four rushing touchdowns.  These are numbers that seniors usually only dream of, let alone anything close to what is expected of a freshman. 

Heinicke (14) exploded on the scene against UMass and took the offense to a different level of production.

And this brings us back to DeMarco.  It is difficult for any starting quarterback to lose his starting job, no matter the reason.  But we must also factor in that this senior was the only starting quarterback his program had ever known.  Additionally, Heinicke proved to be a better, more accurate passer than DeMarco was.  Heck, Heinicke’s completion percentage was exceeded in the CAA only by the league’s Offensive POY, New Hampshire’s senior Kevin Decker. 

In short, how DeMarco handled this situation is a testament to his leadership.  It would have been understandable for DeMarco to complain, cause division within the locker room and generally be a distraction.  But by all accounts, he was a true “professional” in how he handled himself, continuing to mentor the freshman who had supplanted him as the starter.  Even by just watching how the team played, the Monarchs didn’t seem like a group of players consumed with in-house fighting. 

So our position is that although DeMarco was physically injured and started only five games this season, he was a healthy contributor to the success the team enjoyed.  He remained as the team’s holder on extra points and field goal attempts, and even executed fake punts for first downs in the playoffs.  DeMarco could have sabotaged this team, but his true colors as a leader probably kept the team together despite his absence on the field.

The senior graduates as the team’s best quarterback all-time; not many players can stake that claim.  Losing the starting quarterback position to injury does not take away from that.

To the delight of Monarch fans, DeMarco saw action against the Spiders on Senior Day.  He graduates as the most important player in Old Dominion football's brief existence.

2. Play of the Trenches

I started getting interested in football in the late ‘80’s, when Jim Kelly turned around the Buffalo Bills and started taking the team to the playoffs.  I was dazzled by his passing game and Thurman Thomas’ running attack.  As I began to study football more (I was only 12 in 1990), I realized how important the offensive line was.  If they couldn’t block up front, nothing Kelly or Thomas could do mattered.

With this in mind, I thought the two most important units of ODU’s roster this year would be the offensive and defensive lines.  Suffice it to say, the play of the lines paved the way for the team’s 10-3 finish.

Offensive line

Old Dominion led the CAA in scoring offense with 36.7 points per game; the next closest was Towson at 34.8/game.  While Heinicke’s statistical success was documented above, no quarterback could have posted such numbers without supreme protection.  Consider this: per the CAA’s statistical records, ODU quarterbacks attempted 474 passes.  If a team is going to attempt 36 passes per game, it must protect its quarterback. 

(That last sentence is sponsored by John Madden’s School of Obvious Football Statements, whose motto is, “They’re going to have to score more points than their opponent to win the game today.”)

On the season, DeMarco and Heinicke were sacked 21 times.  Twenty-one!  The only other CAA team with fewer sacks with the same number of games (13) is Maine, which allowed only 20 sacks.  (Maine quarterbacks also attempted 46 fewer passes.)  Part of this success is the quick-pass spread offense the team runs.  Another part of it is how elusive DeMarco and Heinicke are. 

The offensive line was the backbone of the Monarch offense.

But even considering the above factors, any team that gives up only 1.6 sacks per game got spectacular play from its offensive line.  Outside of the first game, the same five players started every game this season:

·         Ryan Jensen, left tackle
·         David Born, left guard
·         Jeremy Hensley, center (Third Team All-CAA Lineman)
·         Robbie Duncan, right guard
·         Jake Lowney, right tackle

(Note – Brandon Carr started the first game at RG in place of Duncan.  The other four linemen started all 13 games this year.)

Although these five players did not play every minute of every game they started, the fact that they all started the final twelve games of the season provided much-needed consistency.  That alone is an improvement over the 2010 season, when there were so many injuries that tight end Kai Blanco was forced to suit up as a lineman. 

Another measure of the line’s success is the team’s rushing performance.  The Monarchs finished third in the conference with an average of 168.2 rushing yards per game.  The best performance of the season came on the road against Georgia State; the Monarchs ran through, around and past the Panther defense for 282 rushing yards on 54 attempts.  The flexibility of this pass-oriented offense can take advantage of defensive fronts designed to take away the pass.  As good as Angus Harper (633 yards, ten touchdowns) and Colby Goodwyn (581 yards, three TD’s) are, the line did its job in opening holes for them. 

So the Monarchs have the “skill position” players to accumulate statistics (and wins); the proof is in the points and yards per game.  But the season was predicated on the performance of the line against CAA-quality defenses, and it did more than enough to let playmakers make plays.

The play of the line cannot be discounted when discussing Heinicke's sensational season.

Defensive Line

Whereas Old Dominion’s offense led the conference in scoring, its defense was in the middle of the pack (seventh, at 27.8 PPG).  It is clear that the offense has grown from the first game three years ago.  From the standpoint of points allowed per game, though, the defense simply hasn’t shown the same progress over the same time.  Defensive coordinator Andy Rondeau, the program’s only DC to date, was relieved of his duties following the season.

But the level of points allowed is not indicative of the play of the line.  In fact the statistics clearly point to a successful season by that unit.  Behind the strength of its line, ODU was third in the conference in allowing only 143.7 rushing yards per game.  (The team ranked tenth in allowing 242.4 passing yards/game; only Villanova allowed more.)  The team also finished second in total sacks (36) and sacks per game (2.8).

The 143.7 rushing yards per game is inflated by the season-ending performance against Georgia Southern, which uses a triple-option running attack.  The Eagles ran for 477 yards against ODU, which is more than a quarter of the 1,868 rushing yards allowed all season.  Prior to the playoff loss, the Monarchs allowed only 116 yards per game. 

Ronnie Cameron (96) was the anchor of the Monarchs' defensive line.

The play of the line was not lost on others within the conference.  Ronnie Cameron was named CAA Defensive Player of the Year.  The senior led all CAA defenders in tackles-for-loss (17) and was tied for sixth in sacks (6.5)…from the defensive tackle position.  Cameron also led all DT’s in the conference with 5.6 tackles per game.  Among his accolades, Cameron was named a Second Team All-American by the Associated Press.

But Cameron was not alone along the line.  Nose guard Chris Burnette posted 49 total tackles along with eight TFL’s.  The junior also made his impact on special teams, as he was credited with blocking three kicks.  His efforts got him voted to the Third Team All-CAA.  Chad King’s 5.5 sacks were second on the team only to Cameron, despite missing the final four regular season games.  And Edmon McClam contributed 42 tackles and blocked another kick himself.  The senior contributed big plays in the fourth quarter against Hampton, when the team needed them the most.

The defensive line’s play against Delaware was among the best performances by a specific unit in any game this season.  The Blue Hens returned four starting offensive linemen from the 2010 squad that reached the FCS national title game.  They also sported Preseason CAA Co-Offensive POY Andrew Pierce, a running back who rushed for 110 yards per game the previous season.

Old Dominion held the Blue Hens to 80 yards rushing on 38 attempts.  To be frank, it was stunning to see how well the line performed – they were playing against quite the decorated offensive line (on the road), and were more than just holding their own.  Unfortunately, quarterback Tim Donnelly outplayed DeMarco, passing for 304 yards on 26-of-39 passing.  Despite the loss, the line’s performance in the game demonstrated that they would be alright in conference play.

But the season ended because the Monarchs couldn’t stop GSU’s triple option running attack.  We won’t dwell on that here because all eleven defenders must be disciplined in their assignments.  That's not something that can be blamed solelyon the line; the Monarchs caught the best triple option team and couldn't solve it.  Sometimes that just happens.  There will be more on this in Part II of our analysis.

Chad King (93) was a force for the Monarchs.  Amazingly, the UMass lineman was not called for holding on this play.

1. Slow-and-Steady Wins the Race

One aspect of college football (all of college athletics, really) that is supremely underrated is this simple fact – they are played by college athletes.  No one between the ages of 18-22 has life figured out.  It is in part through athletics that these young men learn life-long lessons that they otherwise wouldn’t get at such a young age. 

With this in mind, it was important for this young Old Dominion team to maintain a steady emotional state.  After a successful two-year start against mostly lower-tier FCS programs, the Monarchs would face CAA opponents in eight consecutive weeks to close the season.  In our preview we documented the accomplishments of programs such as James Madison and Delaware.  There are no proverbial “nights off” in the conference.

It was inevitable that ODU would be presented different challenges throughout the season they had not yet encountered.  With so many wins in two years, it is easy to forget that the team was still learning how to play together.  The team has yet to graduate a four-year letterman yet!

DeMarco was one of only eight seniors on the 2011 roster. 

To the credit of the players and coaching staff, at no point did the team seem overwhelmed by any situation.  (The only game where the team seemed to have an “off night” was Delaware, but that is at least partially attributable to the team being too pumped for its first conference game.)  This was evident both within games and on a game-by-game basis.

Within Games

·         In rainy, miserable weather conditions against an outstanding performance by Hampton’s David Legree, the Monarchs made plays in the fourth quarter and took a late ten-point lead.  They would hold on to win by three.
·         Two weeks later against UMass, Old Dominion raced to a 25-0 lead and lost DeMarco for the second half.  The Minutemen reeled off 26 straight points of their own to take a one-point lead.  In the third quarter, though, ODU blocked a punt to retake the lead and scored three more touchdowns before winning 48-33.
·         In the revival of the Oyster Bowl, James Madison took a 20-14 lead in halftime.  With in-game adjustments on defense (and multiple injuries to JMU on offense), the Monarchs would go on to win the game by a field goal in dramatic fashion.


·         The game against UMass had lasting impacts in many dimensions, one of which is that it was the game immediately following ODU’s first loss of the season.  The Monarchs came back from the loss and took advantage of an inexperienced Minutemen secondary, scoring 48 points (tying for the highest total this season).
·         Towson scored a 60-plus yard touchdown on fourth-and-twenty-nine with less than 90 second left.  The only play I’ve witnessed more shocking was the Tennessee Titans’ “Music City Miracle” kickoff return.  I cannot imagine how difficult this was for the entire ODU program.  The next week, however, the players recovered sufficiently to defeat Villanova, 37-14.  The game against the Wildcats was by far the most important of the season.  Playing on the road after such a devestating turn of events against Towson, the Monarchs could have sulked and been completely distracted by the stunning loss to the Tigers.  Instead, they came out and beat up on their opponents.  This was by far the most important win for the team this year, as they wouldn’t let the Towson loss to define their season.
·         The Oyster Bowl against JMU was another emotionally-charged game between old rivals facing off in football for the first time.  No matter the outcome, ODU could have suffered a letdown the following week against Richmond.  The crowd was definitely hungover from the JMU game, as it struggled to find the same vibe it had the week before.  But the team itself was clearly ready for business, scoring on six of its eight red zone possessions against a Spiders squad with a good red zone defense.  The Monarchs finished with a 42-28 win.

ODU defeated Richmond 42-28 in November, but it was hard to root against a program that brought and displayed its own American flag on the sidelines.

There’s much credit to go around for the team’s focus week-in, week-out.  The players themselves are on the field and deserve credit for preparation before the game and as well as their in-game focus.  The coaches probably had more than a minor impact on keeping those players focused, too.  It is also important to consider that the players and coaches played eleven straight weeks; their bye week was not until the final regular season week of games.  Playing a college football game in eleven consecutive weeks had to have taken its toll, physically and mentally.

Although the team played fast on the field, they were slow-and-steady throughout the season.  No challenge was too big for them.  No high was too high, and no low was too low (other than the loss to GSU, which ended the ODU season; there wasn’t a game the following week).

So what does it all mean?  Old Dominion football exceeded the expectations of probably most people who follow the team (including this blogger)...but not themselves.  This program’s accelerated rise to a playoff-caliber team is a testament to the administration, the coaches, the players, and even the fans.  There was a plan in place and the plan is being executed.  As Coach Wilder says, “aim high!”

But this is not a complete analysis of the season.  In Part II we’re going to get into other details with some superlatives, because there are so many other stories to share.  Can you believe this post has gone roughly 3,000 words and we haven’t even mentioned First Team All-CAA Players Craig Wilkins and Jonathan Plisco?  How about not mentioning a single member of the outstanding wide receiver corps?  And I only referenced the memorable home playoff game against Norfolk State in passing; that game could get an entire blog post itself! 

There are still more side stories still to share.  We’ll get that in Part II of our 2011 analysis, which we hope to publish prior to National Signing Day in February.  Until then, if you've made it this far, then you know what a special season this was for Old Dominion.  And you also know this: bigger things are on the way.

Old Dominion has big shoes to fill with the graduations of King and Cameron.  But the program is heading in the right direction following a 10-3 record in its third season.

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