Minium: ODU showed a lot of character by rallying from a 28-0 deficit to stun North Texas
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
When I interviewed wide receiver and kickoff returner Isaiah Harper a few days before Old Dominion hosted North Texas Saturday night, he was adamant.
ODU has a good team. Yes, we’re 2-7 and we’re not going to a bowl and we suffered blowout losses to Liberty, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic.
But this is the most talented team I’ve played on. We’ve only show it one game, when we upset Virginia Tech Virginia. We’ve under performed, and I don’t know why, but this is a very good team.
Harper, by the way, played on ODU’s 2016 team, which went 10-3, tied for the Conference USA East Division title and defeated Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl.
“We want to beat North Texas, and win our last two after that to prove not only we’re a good team to our fans, but more for ourselves,” he said.
Isaiah is a good kid, a smart kid, a 5-foot-7 speedster who’s never missed a game because of an injury, and is so well respected that he’s a captain.
But beat North Texas? A team that crushed Arkansas and SMU on the road, that’s 7-2, was a few plays away from 9-0? A team that has Conference USA’s best quarterback?
I like Isaiah, but didn’t think ODU had much of a chance, if any. Especially after North Texas took a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter, and appeared headed for a route.
But Harp, a he’s called by teammates, was a soothsayer. ODU rallied to defeat North Texas, 34-31, before a crowd of 18,062.
Blake LaRussa says ODU is much better than its 3-7 record. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns Saturday in ODU's 34-31 victory over North Texas.
A lot of strange things happened in this football game.
Or in this case, spit happened, and that may have been the key to ODU’s victory.
ODU began to rally late in the first half when freshman LaLa Davis scored on a 1-yard run with 2:50 left.
ODU then quickly drove down the field, in thanks part to a fake punt, in which Derek Wilder, the son of coach Bobby Wilder gained 12 yards.
Then, with 10 seconds left, came a spitting incident that lit a fire under ODU. North Texas junior safety Khairi Muhammad spit in the face of ODU wide receiver Jonathan Duhart.
Duhart took off his helmet and they shoved and pushed and were separated by the refs. At first, they were assessed offsetting penalties but then Muhammad was assessed another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and was ejected from the game. Duhart was not ejected and got a ton of revenge when in the final minute he caught a 36-yard pass that set up ODU's game-winning TD.
But back to the spitting incident. The second penalty on Muhammad moved the ball 15 yards closer to the goal, and placekicker Nice Rice drilled a 48-yarder.
The game ebbed and flowed in the second half, but you could see that ODU was a much different team after the spitting incident.
“Jonathan’s our brother,” said senior defensive end Oshane Ximines. “When we saw what happened to him, how we reacted, we got fired up. We came out in the second half and punched them in the mouth like we should have.”
ODU didn’t get much help from the refs in the second half. Travis Fulgham hauled in a 59-yard touchdown pass that would have given ODU the lead early in the fourth quarter. There was contact on the play, but not enough, I think, for a penalty.
Refs flagged Fulgham for pushing. A few plays later, he got bumped to the ground by a UNT defender. This time there was no call.
Not to worry. Right after Fulgham’s penalty, Isaiah Harper caught a 53-yard pass that set up the field goal and cut the North Texas lead to 31-27.
ODU’s defense, which has been porous much of the season, stood tall. North Texas had the ball three more possessions and didn’t score.
In fact, ODU held the Mean Green to just three points in the game’s last 41 minutes.
Lawrence Garner, the linebacker who missed ODU’s last three games, led ODU with 11 tackles, forced a fumble and had an interception. The redshirt sophomore is already a super star for the Monarchs.
Ximines had nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries. Junior quarterback Mason Fine, who become the North Texas passing leader, completed 26 of 44 passes for 240 yards with an interception and two touchdowns. ODU managed to get consistent pressure on him.
ODU’s Blake LaRussa, the most underrated quarterback in Conference USA, was 21 for 43 with an interception, 301 yards and two touchdowns. He was, on this night, the best quarterback on the field.
I’ve saved the drama of the final 3 minutes and 22 seconds for last. There were only a few thousand fans left in the stands from the announced crowd of 18,062 as ODU began the game-winning drive from its 29.
The game was decided with a minute left, when ODU faced a fourth and 6 at the North Texas 40. LaRussa was chased from the pocket, but found Duhart inside the 10, and he was tackled at the four.
First down ODU with 50 seconds left.
LaLa Davis rushed twice and was tackled inches short of the goalline, where ODU had a third down. ODU called a timeout with 18 seconds left to ensure they had two plays left to run.
They didn’t need it. Davis, the freshman from Lynchburg, bulled into the end zone with 15 seconds left.
Freshman LaLa Davis celebrates after scoring the winning touchdown for ODU.
North Texas didn’t have time to mount much of a threat in the final seconds, and Tim Ward finished the game by sacking Fine.
“That was the most incredible comeback I’ve been involved with in 30 years of coaching,” Bobby Wilder said
He complimented the officiating crew for not tossing Duhart after the spitting incident. Duhart was incensed and took off his helmet.
“When someone spits in your face, that’s something different,” he said.
“When we went in at halftime down 28-10, we had momentum from the points and we gathered a lot of unity from getting spit in his face. I saw 69 players rally around him.”
The great mystery about this team is why it’s 3-7 and not, let’s say, 6-4. There was a 28-25 loss to Charlotte in which in the Monarchs outplayed the 49ers, but missed open receivers in the end zone twice.
And then there was the 37-35 loss to East Carolina, in which Justice Davila should have ended the game with an interception with 50 seconds left. One ref ruled it an interception. Another, who was blocked by an ECU player, came over from 20 yards or so away and ruled it incomplete.
C-USA later admitted the wrong call was made but as I wrote earlier this season, the league should have issued an apology and perhaps suspended the officials involved.
LaRussa said he doesn’t quite know what’s happened.
“I’ve never been in a season like we’ve had,” he said. “But I do know this team doesn’t quit no matter what the score or the record is.
“I believe in this year. And we’re a very good team.
“We can’t change the past as much as we’d like. I don’t have the answer as to why our record isn’t better. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to keep plugging and win as many games as we can.”
They can win five and will be favored in their next two, Saturday when they host VMI in the final game ever played at the 82-year-old Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium, and then at Rice on Nov. 24.
Wilder agreed the team is indeed very talented. “But the reason we are 3-7 is because of turnovers, our performance on third down and in the red zone” he said. “Tonight we got some stops in the record zone, we stopped a fake field goal. They did that and hadn’t been doing it all year.
“Harp’s right. This is an extremely talented team. It’s been both the coaches and players, all of us together.”
Next week is ODU’s 66th home game at Ballard Stadium and the Monarchs are 46-19 at home.
Wilder had a difficult time picking out his favorite memory. He mentioned several games, and picked out the 49-35 victory over Virginia Tech earlier this season.
“I think Virginia Tech because of the relationship with the fans,” he said. “It was like nothing else I have ever seen. That was a very special night."
“Tonight is among my favorites, too. To come back from a 28-0 deficit. That was also very special."
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