A young and inexperienced Old Dominion football team kept it close against Virginia Tech Saturday, and barring a few miscues, might have won.
ODU was only down a touchdown after the Monarchs scored on consecutive second-half drives to trim what had been a 24-3 margin to 24-17 with 13 minutes to go.
But then the Hokies scored quickly after a 71-yard kickoff return by Terius Whitley, and held ODU on downs on its next four drives, to claim a 31-17 victory over the Monarchs.
The game was a rematch of ODU’s stunning, 49-35, victory over the then No. 13 Hokies last season in one of the last games at Foreman Field. Coach Bobby Wilder called that the biggest victory in ODU’s 10 years of football.
No such upset was in the cards this year for the Monarchs, who lost more than 30 players from last season, have 47 players who hadn’t played a down for ODU and had 13 new starters in last week’s 24-21 victory over Norfolk State.
Tech (1-1) also lost a number of players, but was picked to finish third in the ACC Coastal Division and was a 28-point favorite over the Monarchs.
While ODU (1-1) didn’t win, the Monarchs showed they can be competitive with an ACC team on the road. And that’s good news for a team that is so inexperienced and was picked to finish sixth or last, depending on the prognosticator, in the Conference USA East Division.
Following a solid performance against Norfolk State, quarterback Stone Smartt showed flashes of brilliance against Tech. He keyed both second-half touchdown drives with smart decision-making and an accurate arm. He passed for 43 yards and ran for 18 more, including a 3-yard run for a touchdown, to key a 75-yard TD drive that narrowed the lead to 24-10.
ODU’s defense then held Tech on downs for the second time of the game, and the Monarchs took just 1:35 to score. Kesean Strong and Smartt opened the drive with long runs – 26 for Smartt and 33 Strong. Smartt then finished off the drive with a 15-yard run that cut the lead to 24-17.
The back to back touchdowns quieted what had been a raucous crowd of 57,282. Meanwhile, chants of “ODU, ODU” could be heard from the Monarch faithful seated in the nosebleed seats at Lane Stadium.
But Wheatley returned the ensuing kickoff 71 yards, and the Hokies took just three plays to score on 13-yard pass from Ryan Willis to Phil Patterson.
Smartt completed 16 of 30 passes for 122 yards and rushed for 48 more. Lala Davis led the Monarchs in rushing with 81 yards.
Wilder has often said there are no moral victories in football and said there was no celebrating in the ODU locker room.
“We’re disappointed that we lost,” he said. “When we got it down to 24-21, we had all the momentum. This is a game we could have won. But then we didn’t get the kickoff in the right spot and they get the kickoff return.
“Even when we were down 31-17, man, we were battling. We got the turnover, and just couldn’t get it to 31-24.
“I’m really proud of this football team’s effort, the way we competed. But we’re not happy. We came here expecting to win.”
Notes: In addition to Lawrence Garner and Isaac Weaver, Virginia Tech grad transfers Chris Cunningham and Eric Kumah were captains for today’s game … Isaac Weaver started his first career game at center. He had started the first 25 games of his career at left tackle … Khadere Kounta started his first career game at left tackle … Kounta is the third true freshman in ODU’s 11-year history to start a game on the offensive line (Tyler Fisher, Darius Garcia) … Chris Cunningham had his first career rushing attempt in the first quarter, gaining eight yards … Blake Watson caught the first three passes of his career in the first quarter … Long snapper B.R. Hatcher recorded his first career tackle on a second quarter punt … Defensive end Derek Wilder registered his first career tackle for loss … James Valle Notched his first career tackle for loss … Keion White recorded a half sack in the first half, the first of his career … With five punts, Bailey Cate has passed Jonathan Plisco for the most career punts in ODU history, with 186 … Stone Smartt rushed for his second touchdown of the season with a three-yeard score in the third quarter and added a 15-yard score in the fourth quarter … Smartt notched his first career two touchdown game … Kesean Strong’s 33 yard fourth quarter run is the longest play for ODU so far this season … Jordan Young recorded his fifth career double-digit tackle game … Jake Herslow had a career-best three catches for 31 yards ... Lala Davis rushed for a career-best 81 yards on 11 carries.