Minium: ODU finishes disappointing season with embarrassing loss to Rice, but there's much to look forward to next season, including a new S.B. Ballard Stadium
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
No one saw this coming. Certainly not in the bright days of August, when a senior-laden Old Dominion football team began practice with so much hope.
ODU was looking to make amends for last season's 5-7 record. With most starters back and 22 seniors on its roster, there was such a belief that this team had worked harder and was more talented than any in recent years.
But ODU ended a disappointing season with en embarrassing 27-13 loss at Rice, a team that had lost 11 in a row after beating FCS member Prairie View.
]The Monarchs finished 4-8, their worst record in their ten seasons.
Once again, ODU's defense had no answers, the offense was unable to gain much running yardage and the Monarchs killed themselves with mistakes, including three turnovers.
As coach Bobby Wilder said after the game, "things have got to change." He's right, especially on defense.
He didn't say coaching changes, but that's likely what's to occur. His staff has been intact for years, and the coaches are close personally. Some have known Wilder for decades.
So whatever moves he make will be personally and professionally difficult.
Athletic director Wood Selig told Ed Miller from The Virginian-Pilot that Wilder is "on solid ground." Lots of Twitter critics are calling for Wilder's head. But the man who established this program, won a CAA championship, moved the program up with FBS and won ODU's first down game in 2016 deserves chance to right the ship.
Remember last weekend when Wilder spoke to about 8,000 fans at a ceremony marking the final game at Foreman Field? All I heard was cheers from the fans. Not a boo was heard.
But clearly, ODU's defense needs an overhaul. ODU will almost surely finish last among the 14 Conference USA teams in every defensive category.
With that said, this year’s team gave Monarch fans some great memories, including the biggest victory in school history in any sport.
After losing its first three games, ODU upset No. 13 Virginia Tech, 49-35, before the most frenetic crowd I ever saw at Foreman Field. It was a magical moment that for a week made ODU a nationally-known name. The joy of that game is something so many fans will never forget.
ODU’s 37-34 victory at Western Kentucky, the first in five games against the Hilltoppers, again put ODU in the national spotlight because the Monarchs scored 10 points in the last 14 seconds.
And then trailing North Texas, 28-0, after the Monarchs had been eliminated from bowl contention, they still had the intestinal fortitude to rally and claim a 34-31 victory.
This team never quit. It almost always played hard. But at times it didn’t play well.
The dye may have been cast when ODU dropped those first three games, including losses to Charlotte and FIU in games that the Monarchs should have won.
The Monarchs made too many mistakes. They turned the ball over too much, overthrew open receivers in the first three games and until late in the season, could not defend against a good passing attack.
With that in mind let’s look ahead to next season, but be aware that most of what you see below is educated guesswork.
Let’s start with one thing I know for sure: ODU fans are going to enjoy much more comfort than they’ve ever had for home football games.
Foreman Field, the stadium we all had a love-hate affair with, is no more. It was a classically beautiful stadium with arched entry ways and clam shell sidelines I’ve never seen at anywhere else.
Foreman Field's East Side is largely down and Friday night at 11, more than half of the West Side was also demolished.
But in less than six days, contractors hired by S.B. Ballard Construction have all but torn the stadium down. A lot of debris remains to be hauled away. But as of Friday night the East Side was kaput and the West Side more than half gone.
The demo crews are working 24 hours per day.
We celebrated the end of the stadium last weekend after ODU blew out VMI, 77-14. The time for mourning the old girl is over. It’s time to look ahead to what we’ll have next season.
ODU is spending $67.5 million to build new stands on the east and west sides in what will be rechristened S.B. Ballard Stadium.
We don’t have final renderings of how the new stadium will look, but the renderings attached to this story are pretty close. Minor changes were made here and there. For instance, the lights in the rendering below are no longer attached to the stadium, and the entrances will be a little different.
But largely, this what you’ll see on Aug. 31, 2019, when ODU opens the stadium against Norfolk State.
This is the West Side of S.B. Ballard Stadium, with Bluestone Avenue at the bottom.
There will be two levels of seats on each side. In addition, the West Side will have a club area for 400 well-heeled fans, called the Priority Automotive Club.
It will also have a new press box (hallelujah!).
Yes, I know creature comforts weren’t great for most fans at Foreman Field. You had someone’s knees in your back and your knees in someone else's back because the seating was so narrow.
So what did we sports writers have to complain about? One of the worst press boxes in Division I, that’s what.
In September, assistant athletic director Eric Bohannon got on his knees, with bleach and a brush, trying to clean decades of rust out of the toilet in the press box so it wouldn’t be an embarrassment when ODU hosted Virginia Tech.
He failed, taking off more porcelain than rust. In one place, where an old AC unit was taken out, the wall was stained brown. The roof leaked and the wiring I plugged my Virginian-Pilot, and later ODU, computer into was frighteningly old.
It was an embarrassment for sports writers, sportscasters and university officials often hosted there. And I get why money wasn't spent to improve the amenities. ODU wisely saved that money for the new stadium.
I haven’t seen renderings of the new press facility, but everything in the new stadium will be first class.
Especially the fan amenities.
All 15,000 sideline seats will have back support, and one-third will be chair back seats.
Looking at the West Side of the new S.B. Ballard Stadium.
If you didn’t get the chance to sit in the sample seats that were behind the south end zone this season, I did. The seats are much wider, and have much more leg room, than Foreman Field offered.
No longer will you have to stand when someone walks past you. And you can actually put your legs out in a comfortable position.
Restrooms will be plentiful and pleasant. And the concessions areas, which will include some name brand food outlets, will be much like those at the Ted Constant Center. In other words, they’ll be places you’ll enjoy.
There will also be a store where you can purchase Monarch wear.
The sight lines from the seats will be so much better – the stands have been engineered so those further away from the 50 are angled to face toward the field. Athletic director Wood Selig says there won't be a bad seat in the house.
S.B. Ballard Stadium will make next season much more pleasant regardless of how the Monarchs perform.
Back to football: ODU’s 18-man recruiting class is rated third in Conference USA, and that doesn't include several junior college commitments. That's ODU's highest rating since 2014. Twelve of the 18 players are linemen or linebackers, and this may be ODU's biggest class in terms of height.
And more Juco kids are coming. ODU will lack experience next season. That's why Wilder sent his assistant coaches on the road to junior colleges a few weeks ago during an open date.
"We need immediate help, especially on defense," he said.
As for prognosticating next season, let’s start with the good news – the offensive line loses two starters but no backups, so the potential is there for improvement. And the O line needs to improve. It neither opened holes for running backs nor provided adequate pass protection.
Every linebacker returns, including Lawrence Garner, who could be the best defensive player in Conference USA next season.
All the key special teams players return, including kickers Nick Rice and Brad Davis and punter Bailey Cate.
ODU loses Jeremy Cox at running back, but he missed much of the season with injuries. In fact, injuries were a major problem on both sides of the ball for ODU.
Two true freshmen running backs, La La Davis and Will Knight, played this season and showed great promise. Wisely, Wilder did not play them in more than four games, meaning they’ll both have freshman eligibility next season.
LaLa Davis, the freshman from Lynchburg, shows much promise at running back.
Davis could be another Ray Lawry.
Quarterback Blake LaRussa, who returns for his senior year, had a remarkable run this season. The former walk-on proved that he’s one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA. And as we all know, when ODU has a good quarterback, the Monarchs usually win.
I can’t name unsigned players, as I work for the University, and doing so would violate NCAA rules. But let’s just say if ODU holds onto all of its commits, the Monarchs will have another really talented arm in camp.
The bad news? ODU must replace 11 senior starters, including big holes at wide receiver and on the defensive line.
ODU needs wide receivers to step in for standout seniors Travis Fulgham, Jonathan Duhart and Isaiah Harper. There are some good upper class receivers, but freshmen Cornell Hendrick and Nigel Fitzgerald have a shown lot of promise.
Defensive tackle Sokoya McDuffie, who redshirted this season, has great potential. It also helps that defensive tackle Miles Fox was hurt early this season and returns as a redshirt season next year. He was one of ODU’s best defensive players.
Three of five starters in the defensive backfield leave. ODU has a lot of depth at DB, but the problem is that some of them didn’t play so well this season. And there is so much youth among the DBs.
The Priority Automotive Club will provide upscale amenities for 400 fans on the stadiums West Side next season.
Sean Carter, for instance, is backed up by three freshman. And freshman Lance Boykin started against Rice.
The outlook is dimmed by the schedule, which will be ODU’s most difficult ever, a statement I don’t make lightly.
Let’s start with the two non-conference road games – at Virginia and Virginia Tech You can bet the Hokies will be spoiling for revenge after the upset loss to ODU earlier this season.
Although U.Va. lost to Virginia Tech in OT Friday night, the Cavs are much improved and headed for a bowl game for the second season in a row.
Regardless, they are ACC teams, and will be overwhelming favorites against ODU.
ODU’s home non-conference games are also challenging. ODU opens the new S.B. Ballard Stadium on Aug. 31 against Norfolk State, and although the Spartans were an average FCS team this season, they will be sky high. Only one school has played more football games on the field at S.B. Ballard Stadium than ODU – Norfolk State.
There will be a goodly portion of NSU fans there. That game isn’t a gimme.
Neither is ODU’s other home game, against East Carolina. The Pirates beat ODU because of a blown call by a ref on an interception by Justice Davila with 50 seconds left. Had the call been made correctly, ODU would have won, and who knows what direction the season would have taken from there?
But ECU has generally recruited better than ODU in recent years (although not this season), and will bring a ton of fans with them.
Because Conference USA hasn’t announced which East and West division teams will play next season, ODU still doesn’t know its two opponents from the West.
UAB is the only Conference USA team the Monarchs haven’t played, so you can bet the Blazers will be on ODU’s schedule next season. And UAB won the West Division title.
My guess is the second game will be Louisiana Tech or Southern Miss, and both are expected to be very good.
Generally, most of the East Division teams that were strong this season will be strong next as well, especially Marshall. Middle Tennessee, FIU and FAU. And Charlotte has a lot of young players from a team that won a school record 5 games..
ODU, in short, will be playing one of the most challenging schedules in all of mid-major football.
After coming off the bench to lead ODU to a 49-35 victory over Virginia Tech, Blake LaRussa proved to be one of the best quarterbacks in Conference USA.
Going to a bowl next season will be a huge challenge. But fans will at least be be able to watch next season in comfort.
And the stadium will do more than make games more pleasant for spectators. It’s already helped recruiting.
ODU has been recruiting against schools such as Appalachian State, Marshall, Liberty and East Carolina with an inferior stadium. The new stadium marks a major and welcome escalation for ODU in the facilities wars against their recruiting brethren.
ODU already offers a nice practice facility, attractions such as nearby Virginia Beach and university with a beautiful campus and strong academics.
So even if the outlook for ODU’s football team next season looks a little hazy, the outlook for the long-term future seems much brighter.