Saturday, January 21, 2012

ODU Football 2011 Review - Part II

Today we’ll complete our review of Old Dominion University football’s 2011 season.  In Part I of our review, we looked at the season through the prism of the three keys we identified before the first game: a healthy Thomas DeMarco, the play of both sets of linemen, and a “slow-and-steady” approach. 

Despite a lengthy post that analyzed the season from those points of view, it was an incomplete analysis; it left out too many pieces of the puzzle.  For example, it prevented us from highlighting the impact of special teams on the outcome of games.  Also, there were four First Team All-CAA Monarchs; we only discussed one (CAA Defensive POY Ronnie Cameron).

So here, in Part II, we’re going to review specific events, performances and outcomes from the year that didn’t fit into Part I.  Enjoy!

The Monarchs warm up before their contest with UMass.

Best Individual Performances – Offense

5. Reid Evans, 42-28 win over Richmond: The Spiders came into Norfolk the first weekend of November short-handed on defense.  Richmond’s coaches devised a defensive strategy to take away the long pass.  Taylor Heinicke took advantage of this and hit Evans on several short passes; the junior wideout finished with 12 catches for 149 yards receiving.  It seemed like he literally caught everything thrown his way.  Evans would be voted Third Team All-CAA Wide Receiver following the regular season.

Goodwyn (36) in action at Delaware.

4. Colby Goodwyn, 40-17 win over Georgia State: Goodwyn was held out of the Monarchs’ opener against Campbell, so Week Two was his first action of the season.  Similar to the 2010 season, the Panthers’ defensive strategy seemed to be focused on shutting down the ODU pass game.  Coach Bobby Wilder’s offense was happy to respond with emphasizing the run – Goodwyn finished with a career-high 184 rushing yards on 24 carries and one touchdown.  The chance for another touchdown was denied after the refs ruled he fumbled at the goal line, even though video evidence clearly showed his knee was down before he dropped the ball. 

3. Larry Pinkard, 23-20 win over James Madison: Old Dominion’s administration revived the Oyster Bowl for the contest between the Monarchs and the Dukes.  Heinicke found Pinkard six times for 94 yards, and the redshirt freshman scored the only two touchdowns of the game for ODU.  Those seem like modest numbers, not necessarily worthy of a top-three offensive performance.  Right?

Wrong!  What stands out about this performance was the insane, “I honestly don’t believe that just happened” catch in the second quarter.  (The patient reader will be rewarded with a picture later in this post.)  Heinicke scrambled to evade three defenders on a fourth down play, and eventually threw the ball up for grabs towards the end zone.  Pinkard out-jumped two JMU defenders, who literally had him sandwiched between them, and hauled in the pass.  Without Pinkard’s performance against JMU, Old Dominion wouldn’t have been in position to win at the end. 

2. Antonio Vaughan, 41-14 win over Campbell: The season-opener was the first game action for all the redshirt freshmen that sat out the 2010 season.  Vaughan wasted no time making an impact; ODU’s first offensive play from scrimmage was a quick pass he caught and ran for 43 yards.  Vaughan was the star of the game, accounting for 191 all-purpose yards along with two total touchdowns.  This set the tone for his performance this year, as he finished second behind only Goodwyn with 960 total yards from scrimmage.

On his first play from scrimmage as a Monarch, Vaughan (5) turned a quick pass into a 43 yard completion. 

1. Taylor Heinicke, 55-48 loss to Georgia Southern: The Georgia native turned in one of the best performances of any freshman quarterback in an FCS playoff game.  In addition to completing 25 of 44 for 341 yards, he threw for five touchdowns without an interception on the road against a fabulous Eagles defense.  The freshman was also the team’s leading rusher (75 yards) and his rushing touchdown late in the game brought ODU within a touchdown of tying the game.  Alas, the Monarchs couldn’t recover the onsides kick (the ball failed to go ten yards before ODU touched it), and thus ended the Monarchs’ season.  But if Heinicke’s performance is a sign of future playoff performances, the Monarchs are in good hands the next three seasons.

Best Individual Performances – Defense

Arain (6) played his best game of the season against UMass.

5. Alex Arain, 48-33 win over Massachusetts: The wideout-turned-safety-turned-linebacker had the best game of his career against the Minutemen.  The junior finished with twelve total tackles, which included one tackle-for-loss.  Arain also forced a fumble and was credited with breaking up a pass.  Unfortunately Arain’s season ended prematurely, as he was injured against Richmond and did not return to play.  Still, Arain finished ninth on the team in tackles (46).

4. Ronnie Cameron, 39-35 loss to Towson: In the heart-breaking loss, Cameron was at times dominant.  The CAA’s Defensive POY finished with eleven total tackles, 2.5 sacks and another TFL.  But the less we talk about this game, the better we’ll sleep at night.

3. Eriq Lewis, 35-31 win over William and Mary: The redshirt freshman played well enough throughout camp to earn one of the starting cornerback positions.  Lewis’ production during the season validated Coach Wilder’s decision; he was one of only seven freshmen selected to an All-CAA squad.  But here we give Lewis recognition for his performance against William and Mary.  While he had only four tackles, he intercepted passes on each of the Tribe’s two fourth-quarter possessions.  His performance literally sealed the win for the team’s ninth win. 

2. Craig Wilkins, 45-42 win over Hampton: Pirates quarterback David Legree came into the 2011 season having completed less than 50% of his passes.  After an offseason of improving his game, he had the performance of his life in Norfolk, completing 25 of 35 passes for 260 yards and two total TD’s (one passing, one rushing).  Had it not been a Herculean effort from Wilkins, Legree would have guided Hampton to a win at Foreman Field.  Wilkins posted an amazing 17 tackles, including one TFL.  Five of those tackles were of Legree, who displayed incredible elusiveness against Monarch defenders most of the game.  Wilkins made just enough plays for Old Dominion to win.

Cameron (96) and Wilkins (12) led Old Dominion's defense this season.

1. Edmon McClam, 45-42 win over Hampton: Admittedly, it appears odd that ODU’s top two individual defensive performances came from a game whose final score is 45-42.  However, McClam’s best career game included the game-securing sequence in the fourth quarter.  The senior defensive lineman forced fumbles on consecutive plays, ending Hampton drives before they could answer Monarch scores. 

After the Monarchs scored on a fourth-quarter blocked punt to take a 38-34 lead over the Pirates, Hampton took over at its own 40 with 6:41 remaining.  Legree completed a short pass to Isiah Thomas; McClam chased down Thomas eight yards past the line of scrimmage and forced a fumble on the tackle.  Paul Morant recovered the ball at midfield, but ODU’s drive stalled after three plays.  Following a punt, Hampton took over again at its own 17; McClam sacked Legree on first down, and Cameron recovered the ball at the Hampton 10.  Two plays later, ODU scored a touchdown to stake a 45-34 lead. 

While Wilkins led the team in tackles that day, it was McClam who came up big in the fourth quarter to secure the win.  The senior finished with six tackles along with the two sacks and two forced fumbles.

Best Special Teams Performances

For this category, it’s too difficult to list one player per game.  The term “special teams” has the word “team” in the description, and as we’ll see, several players came up big in games in kicking situations. 

Old Dominion's punting unit was key to its success in 2011.

5. 45-42 win over Hampton: The Pirates came into Foreman Field and really took it to the Monarchs, leading 34-31 after three quarters.  But early in the fourth quarter, James Faircloth blocked a punt and Pinkard returned it for a touchdown to give ODU the 38-34 lead.  From there, McClam and the defense took over and made enough plays to escape with the win. 

First Team All-CAA punter Jonathan Plisco punted thrice for a 47.0 average, with a long of 59 yards.  DeMarco punted twice on fourth down, and both attempts were downed inside Hampton’s 20.

4. 40-17 win over Georgia State: In the first half against their future CAA conference mates, the Monarchs blocked two punts.  Alex Arain’s block was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by freshman receiver Blair Roberts; Paul Morant’s block landed out of bounds, and ODU scored on the possession.  These blocks and Plisco’s 46.7 yards per punt on nine punts completely changed field position in ODU’s favor.  Placekicker Jarod Brown also hit a 51 yard field goal in the Georgia Dome.

3. 48-33 win over Massachusetts: The game against Hampton was not the only contest in which ODU scored on a blocked punt to take a lead.  Down 26-25 in the third quarter, and having lost DeMarco to an injury, the Monarchs backed up UMass deep in their own territory.  Amidst chants of “BLOCK THAT KICK!” from the fans, Jakwail Bailey did block a punt that went through the end zone for a safety.  With a 27-26 lead, Heinicke led the offense to three touchdowns on subsequent possessions to close out the game.

A subtle coaching strategy on kickoffs also deserves special recognition.  The Minutemen brought eventual First Team All-CAA kick returner Jesse Julmiste into Norfolk.  In earlier games against Campbell, Hampton and Delaware, poor kickoff coverage resulted in long returns.  The coaches therefore directed Jarod Brown to intentionally kick towards an up-man rather than kicking long to Julmiste.  The strategy worked – on ODU’s seven kickoffs, Julmiste had only two returns for 46 yards, while Chase Danska had five returns for 51 yards.  Danska finished with only six other returns during the season.

The Monarchs also recovered an onsides kick early in the game after its first score.  Plisco punted four times for an average of 45.0 yards per attempt.

2. 27-17 loss to Delaware: This game would have been ranked #1 had it not been for one kickoff return.  Old Dominion took a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter, unexpectedly hanging with the 2010 FCS national runners-up.  But then Delaware returned the subsequent kickoff 60 yards to ODU’s 32 yard line; Tim Donnelly threw a touchdown pass on the next play, and the Monarchs couldn’t recover.

But special teams played a part in putting ODU into position to even be competitive in the fourth quarter.  In the first quarter, the Monarch punt-rush squad forced Delaware’s punter to rush his kick and he fumbled the ball; ODU recovered the ball and scored a touchdown.  For much of the game this was the only Monarch touchdown.  Later in the first quarter, the Blue Hens attempted a field goal, which Chris Burnette blocked to prevent a score. 

Plisco converted this fourth-quarter fake punt into a first down.

Plisco had perhaps his best game, which says a lot for someone who has selected an All-American all three seasons of his career.  The junior was his usual stellar self with seven punts for an average of 48.6 yards per attempt.  A couple of his longer kicks drew “ooohs” and “ahhhs” from Delaware’s crowd.  But it was his execution of a fake punt inside ODU’s own 25 yard line that put his performance over the top.  Down 16-10 in the fourth quarter, ODU failed to convert on third down in their own territory.  When everyone assumed Plisco would punt, he instead took off running.  With excellent blocking ahead of him, the punter ran for 15 yards.  It was this drive on which Old Dominion took its 17-16 lead.

But then the kickoff unit gave up the aforementioned long return, and the game was never the same.
1. 23-20 win over James Madison: The heavens opened up the morning of this game, resulting a slick field.  The sun failed to make an appearance, as it was probably blown away by the strong winds.  Under these conditions, both teams played as well as could have been expected on special teams.  With the Dukes keeping Heinicke and the ODU offense out of the end zone in the second half, Brown kicked three field goals to account for all nine points scored in the half.  Plisco punted four times for an average of 48.5 yards per kick. 

Down by one field goal, the Dukes were able to drive into field goal position and stopped the clock with time for one last field goal attempt.  Immediately after the sound of JMU’s kicker making contact with the ball came another thump – the sound of Wilkins’ hand getting a piece of the FG attempt.  The ball had enough momentum to eventually wander towards the end zone, but it had no chance of splitting the uprights after Wilkins blocked it.  Old Dominion’s special teams had a direct impact on the outcome of this game, down to the final play.

Games Whose Outcomes Don’t Get Enough Recognition

The results of two games in the middle of the season didn’t get as much attention as others, but should have. 

31-23 win over Rhode Island.  On the first weekend of October, ODU defeated UMass for its first conference win.  It also lost the only starting quarterback it had ever known.  Although Taylor Heinicke played well in one half against the Minutemen, the true freshman was making his first career start at Rhode Island.

Down 14-7 late in the first half, Heinicke found Larry Pinkard for a seven-yard touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.  The Rams took a six-point lead early in the third quarter and the lead changed three more times thereafter.  Eriq Lewis sealed the win with an interception on URI’s last pass of the game.

Despite getting outgained 313-297, the Monarchs won the turnover battle with two INT’s on the day.  While it would be understood if the coaches altered the game plan to compensate for any first-start jitters Heinicke may have had, he still attempted 32 passes; the team did not deviate drastically from its passing attack. 

Heinicke’s first start resulted in the team’s first conference road win.  It gave him and other players a boost of confidence that they could win on the road in the CAA.

37-14 win over Villanova.  On Homecoming weekend in October at home, Old Dominion lost in heart-breaking fashion against Towson.  Up next for the Monarchs was a talented-but-vastly-inexperienced Villanova team.  It would be understandable for the Monarchs to have come out deflated against the Wildcats.
Let this be the last time the Towson game is referenced.

Instead, they were as crisp as usual.  Antonio Vaughan and walk-on running back Lorenzo Smith scored 42-and-53 yard plays in the first nine minutes of the quarter, respectively, sparking the team to an early lead.  The Wildcats showed signs of life in the first half, cutting the lead to 23-14 at one point, but ODU’s defense shut down their offense in the second half. 

Simply put, the Monarchs did not let the loss to Towson define their season.  The following week was the Oyster Bowl against JMU, which got considerably more attention than the Monarchs’ win over Villanova.  Nevertheless, the ability to depart Philadelphia with a convincing “W” immediately after the Towson game showed the resiliency of the squad.

Most Impactful Freshman

3. Larry Pinkard, wide receiver.  Pinkard finished behind fellow freshman Vaughan in both receptions (37 to 47) and receiving yards (488 to 520).  But Pinkard finished tied with running back Angus Harper for most total touchdowns with ten (nine receiving, one on the blocked punt).  Said another way, one of every four of his receptions went for a touchdown.  Pinkard seemed to pick up his game midway through the season, which coincided with Heinicke’s assumption of the starter’s role.  For these reasons, we’re going with Pinkard.

ODU fans didn't hear much of Lovato's name this season. 

2. Rick Lovato, long-snapper: In its first two seasons of existence, ODU got All-American performances from its long-snapper, Dustin Phillips.  With the graduation of Phillips after the 2010 season, Coach Wilder went with a true freshman from Middletown, NJ, as his replacement.  Lovato went on to have a season when fans did not call out his name.  THIS IS A GOOD THING FOR A LONG SNAPPER!  We can only think of one snap that was errant, on a field goal attempt to close the first half against JMU.  (The kick was blocked.)  For a program that emphasizes excellence on special teams, Lovato deserves recognition for his performance this season.

1. Taylor Heinicke, quarterback.  The freshman was recently awarded College Football Performance Award’s National Performer of the Year; it was the first time a freshman received the award.  He was named to the Third Team All-CAA as quarterback.  He had 25 touchdowns against one interception, which came at the end of the loss to Towson.  The young man just has “it.”

Best Individual Moment

This is not meant to identify a specific play necessarily; there are various moments that occur throughout games that help define seasons.  Sometimes the moments are bigger than the plays themselves.

5. Old Dominion taking a 17-16 lead at Delaware.  A team that had played 25 game in its entire existence went on the road to play the previous year’s national runners-up in its first-ever conference game.  On the touchdown, DeMarco scrambled first to his left and then to his right to complete a touchdown pass to Antonio Vaughan.  The extra point gave ODU the lead and put the rest of the conference on notice.  Win or lose (and the team DID lose), this moment was proof to the team that they could already compete with the conference’s best programs.

Old Dominion's front seven held Delaware to only 80 rushing yards on 38 carries, keeping the team in the game into the fourth quarter.

4. Pinkard’s second touchdown against JMU.  We thought Heinicke was just throwing it up for grabs to avoid a sack around the 40 yard line.  Instead, Pinkard came away with the catch against two JMU defenders. 

Larry Pinkard caught this pass for an unbelievable touchdown on fourth down.  (PHOTO CREDITED TO STEPHEN M. KATZ OF THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT)

3. Bailey’s blocked punt against UMass.  There were other blocked punts and kicks throughout the season (eleven total in 13 games), but this one was needed more meaningful than the others.  The team lost DeMarco and squandered a 25-0 lead.  There was a vibe to the crowd when UMass lined up to punt.  The Monarchs blocked a punt against Hampton to take a lead, so the fans more than just hoped for another one here; they expected it.  Bailey delivered, and ODU took back the lead.  The win would mark the team’s first conference victory.

2. DeMarco entering the game at quarterback against Richmond.  As previously discussed, DeMarco handled his demotion upon Heinicke’s strong performance as well as a senior quarterback could handle it.  With a two-touchdown lead late in the fourth quarter, and amid “DE-MAR-CO!” chants, Coach Wilder sent DeMarco in to replace Heinicke.  Although it was not his last action at quarterback at Foreman Field (he also played the next home game late against Norfolk State), it was fitting for the most important football Monarch in its brief history to see the field on Senior Night.

DeMarco was honored at the start of Senior Day.
1. Craig Wilkins blocking JMU’s field goal attempt to end the game.  The rivalry between the schools extended beyond basketball to the football field.  It’s going to be hard for the programs to top this game.

Team MVP

4. Jonathan Plisco.  Of Plisco’s 51 punts, 20 traveled at least 50 yards.  With the 2011 season being the Monarchs’ first in the CAA, they needed this performance from Plisco to change field position.  Add his two converted fake punts (he also ran for a first down in the third quarter against Villanova), and we’ve got a player who did as much to put ODU in position to win as anyone else.

3. Jeremy Hensley.  Hensley has been the starter at center since the program’s very first game.  While he missed multiple games last season due to an injury, he was the unquestioned starter when he returned healthy for 2011.  We’ve shared our thoughts in Part I that Heinicke could not have performed to such a high level if not for a strong effort from the offensive line; the Third Team All-CAA Hensley deserves praise for being the leader of that line.

Hensley (58) was the anchor of a stellar offensive line.
2. Ronnie Cameron.  Voted as the conference’s best defensive player, Cameron did more than knl ts dae e team in sacks and tackles-for-loss.  Having been through two seasons in the CAA with Hofstra, he led the team from his first day with his “know-how” on and off the field.  More than anyone else, he had the team ready for conference-play.

1. Taylor Heinicke.  Heinicke emerged as the leader of the highest-scoring offense in the CAA.  It was even more of a challenge given that he supplanted the most popular player in ODU’s history, but it was as smooth a transition as possible. 

Heinicke, his arm and his elusiveness took ODU's offense to a different level from the very start.

And there we have it!  With 2011 in the books, we now focus on the future.  Once basketball season is over, there are a couple things lined up to post.  How does ODU match up against the rest of the conference?  How will departures and additions impact the Monarchs?  Can I really attend all eleven regular season (and any subsequent playoff) games?

2011 was a memorable season for the Old Dominion Univeresity Monarhcs.  But with less than ten players graduating, 2012 should be even better.

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