ODU Athletics

Minium: ODU Played With Poise and Character, and Showed a Ton of Promise, in 31-17 Loss at Virginia Tech

September 07, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

Let’s be honest, the numbers didn’t look promising for the Old Dominion football team as the Monarchs approached this season.

More than 30 players were gone from last season, 47 had never played a down for the Monarchs and ODU had 13 new starters last week when they opened with a 24-21 victory over Norfolk State.

The Monarchs were picked to finish sixth in the Conference USA East Division by coaches and seventh by some prognosticators. This looked every bit like a rebuilding year, one in which the Monarchs would struggle to compete against the strongest schedule they’ve faced in 11 football seasons.

But after ODU’s performance Saturday at Virginia Tech, Monarch Nation should feel a lot more optimistic about this season.

ODU didn’t win at Lane Stadium, but the way the Monarchs played, with poise and with passion, the way they went toe to toe physically with the Hokies, was an unexpected and encouraging sign.

Jake Herslow after making a first-down catch for ODU

ODU trimmed what had been a 24-3 Tech lead to 24-17 with 13 minutes in the second half. Even after Tech took a 31-17 lead, ODU continued to compete.

The Monarchs had the ball four more times, once driving into the red zone.

This was a game they could have won.

As quarterback Stone Smartt  said, the Monarchs likely would have won had "we shot ourselves in the foot with mistakes.”

Yes, they made mistakes. That’s what young teams do. But a young team also improves and this team made a ton of improvement from last week.

ODU was playing at Virginia Tech, an ACC team that was motivated to throttle the Monarchs after last year’s, 49-35, stunning defeat in Norfolk. The Hokies played with a lot of enthusiasm, and at times, the game got a little chippy.

“We knew we could win this game,” said Smartt, who after two games appears capable of developing into a dual-threat player in the mold of David Washington, who led ODU to 10 victories in 2016, including a win over Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl .

ODU has weaknesses. The offense is still limited because the line is so young. Khadere Kounta, a true freshman, started at left tackle, and played well.

Smartt didn’t have a lot of time to throw, but consider that ODU rushed for 202 yards, with Lala Davis (81 yards) and Kesean Strong (51) bolting for good yardage up the middle against Tech, which has a huge defensive line.

Wilder says it will take a while for the line to develop, but given time, it will. The talent is there. As long as ODU remains healthy up front, they will get better.

ODU’s receivers lack experience and because of that, the Hokies double-teamed wide receiver Erik Kumah much of the game.

Coach Bobby Wilder says he's encouraged by how well ODU played at Virginia Tech

An aside: Kumah and tight end Chris Cunningham were on the other sideline last season when the Hokies fell to the Monarchs.

They transferred to ODU, and that meant that Saturday was a difficult game for them. Every time their names were called, they were booed.

The Hokies were especially physical with Kumah but he never lost cool.

“I’m proud of the way they handled this,” Smartt said.

Kumah Tweeted a classy tribute to Bud Foster, Tech’s long-time defensive coordinator who is retiring after this season.

“Good game. Much respect to @coachfostervt y’all send him out on a good note.”

Andy Bitter, who covers Virginia Tech for The Athletic, Tweeted that he saw Kumah and Tech head coach Justin Fuente hug after the game.

“All Love,” Kumah responded.

Back to the ODU and its promising performance.

Wilder made it clear that this was no moral victory.

“The No. 1 thing I told our team is that we lost,” he said. “There wasn’t any celebrating in that locker room.

"We didn’t come here to just make it a good football game. We didn’t come here to lose 31-17. We felt like we could have won today and I feel like we should have won.

“At 24-17 we had all the momentum.”

Jeremy Meiser was a disruptive force on the defensive line for ODU, coach Bobby Wilder said. 

To put those quotes in context, Wilder was upbeat and smiling. Clearly, he also likes what he sees.

“What I’m most proud of is we were down 24-3 and looking like we’re going to get blown out and we got it down to 24-17 in the fourth quarter,” he said.

“You never want to be down 24-3, but you saw tremendous character out of this football team. I saw that last week in the fourth quarter,” when the Monarchs had to score a late touchdown to win against NSU.

“They were just playing hard,” during that comeback, Wilder said.

“They want to play good football. They played with so much character. They just made too many critical mistakes today."

He added later: "If we can keep playing football like this, we’re going to be a good team."

Smartt keyed both second-half TD drives both with his legs and arm.

On fourth down, Stone Smartt stretched for this first down in the fourth quarter.

"Stone had a huge fourth down possession when he stretched the ball for the first down," Wilder said. "Having that kind of awareness from a guy who’s only playing his second game is remarkable.

"Frankly, a lot of times things weren’t open down the field for him. But he didn’t force the ball."

Smartt also "handled a very hostile environment" from the 55,972 fans in Lane Stadium, about 9,000 short of a sellout.

Wilder also complimented backup quarterback Messiah deWeaver, who when Smartt briefly went out of the game with cramps, rushed for a first down.

"It was his first time playing for us, and he handled the pressure so well," Wilder said.

"Stone is our starting quarterback. He has earned the starting job. But i really feed good about our backups. For the first time since I've coached at Old Dominion, i feel like we've got two quarterbacks we can win with."

We haven't even talked about the defense, which was a huge worry going into this season. ODU's defense was porous last season, when they ranked last in Conference USA in nearly every defensive category.

Defensive coordinator David Blackwell, who coached at East Carolina last season, brought an attacking, aggressive scheme that so far appeared to make ODU a much better defensive team. 

The defensive front got little pressure on Tech quarterback Ryan Willis. "He was back there for three or four seconds and that's too much time." Wilder said.

"They're up there fighting, but we need to be able to develop a little better pass rush to take the stress off" ODU's defensive backs.

Keion White and Juwan Ross teamed up for this tackle. 

But Wilder added that "we're just beginning to figure out David Blackwell's system and he's really just beginning to fully learn about our players."

From where I was sitting, far atop Lane Stadium in the press box, this defense looks far better. The Monarchs tackle with more authority. I didn't see the Hokies breaking a lot of tackles. And unlike last season, there were no wide open receivers. ODU's defensive backs covered pretty well.

ODU has a bye week before making its first trip to Charlottesville to take on the University of Virginia. The Wahoos likely will be nationally ranked when they host ODU on Sept. 21.

"Practice is going to be a key for us," Wilder said. "Practice is where we're going to get better.

"And we're going to need two weeks to get ready for U.Va." 

Contact Minium: hminium@odu.edu

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