Minium: ODU's Injury-Plagued Offense Has to Get Better, or This Will be a Long Season for the Monarchs
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
As he stepped to the podium for his shortest post-game press conference in the nine seasons I’ve covered him, Old Dominion football coach Bobby Wilder smiled and said: “How are you doing gentlemen?”
Then he added. “Better than me I expect.”
Yes, we’re all doing better than Wilder, who spoke for 4 minutes and 58 seconds. I can’t imagine a more difficult place for him to be right now.
Last month the Monarchs outplayed Virginia Tech in the second half and Virginia in the first half and lost both games.
ODU came oh-so-close to beating two ACC teams on the road and had they done so, Wilder would be the toast of the town.
But not only did they lose both, they have since dropped two more against far lesser teams and are 1-4.
And it's not just that they lost, it's how they lost.
Last week, the Monarchs fell to East Carolina, 24-21, when they gave up a touchdown on a blocked punt and lost a touchdown when officials ruled quarterback Stone Smartt fumbled when replays seemed to show he didn’t.
Saturday night, the Monarchs suffered their worst loss of the season. Western Kentucky stuffed ODU’s offense, holding the Monarchs to their third worst offensive output in 11 seasons, and rolled to a 20-3 victory.
There were no excuses for the Monarchs – they were simply outplayed, especially when their offense was on the field.
Harrell Blackmon and the ODU defense continue to play well.
ODU is 1-4, 0-1 in Conference USA, with seven conference games left. And consider that had the Monarchs not rallied for a fourth-quarter touchdown against Norfolk State, they would be 0-5.
ODU’s defense continues to play well, extraordinarily well under the circumstances. Yet after an encouraging start this season, ODU's offense had its poorest performance of the season against WKU.
I think everyone hows the bottom line: the offense has to start producing points for the Monarchs to begin winning.
ODU fans are frustrated, and who can blame them? This wasn't supposed to be a great season for ODU, which was picked to finished 6th in the Conference USA East Division.
But the near-wins at U.Va. and Tech indicated the Monarchs would do well this season. That was certainly my thought. This raised the hopes of Monarch Nation.
And this is not how anyone wants to open a new stadium.
Wilder’s biggest concern now may be holding his team together. This is a young team and young football players who experience adversity can lose heart or begin to point fingers at each other. So far that hasn't happened and Wilder vows it won’t.
"All these players want to do is win," Wilder said earlier in the week.
Wilder is good at keeping his players focused under duress. In 2014, in their first season in FBS, the Monarchs lost six of their first nine games. They won their last three and had enough other teams lost that day, ODU would have gone to a bowl game.
Effort isn’t the issue here. The Monarchs played hard against WKU. It was a physical, hard-hitting game until the last whistle.
They just weren't good enough.
Quarterback Stone Smartt continues to have problems trying to find open receivers.
For those on Twitter hurling insults at some ODU players, please remember that these guys are college students. Some are teenagers. They’re busting their rear ends. They're not only working hard on the football field, they're going to class and from what I've seen, representing ODU pretty well off the field.
They should be off limits to Twitter insults.
I wish some of you could have seen the pain in the faces of players I saw after the game. They clearly want to win, probably more than any fans.
“It definitely hurts,” Smartt said when asked about the loss.
The Monarchs were without wide receiver Eric Kumah and offensive lineman Nick Saldiveri, both out with injuries. Tailback LaLa Davis hardly played and wide receiver Jake Herslow caught one pass and from what I understand did not return to the game.
Losing four of your top offensive players would take a toll on any team, especially when you have razor-thin depth.
Yes, as Wilder said, when someone goes down, “the next guy has to step up.”
In this case, the next guy stepping up is nearly always a sophomore or a freshman. There are only three seniors among ODU’s top 22 offensive players.
ODU passed well last season because it had wide receivers – Travis Fulgham, Jonathan Duhart and Isaiah Harper -- who were talented and would make the tough catches. So far, no such playmakers have emerged.
“There’s not a lot right now for Stone to be able to find in the pass game,” Wilder said.
When the Monarchs got close to scoring against WKU, they self-destructed.
The defense forced two turnovers in the red zone in the first half yet ODU came away with only three points.
ODU scored what appeared to be a touchdown after the first turnover on Robert Washington's 15-yard run. It was negated by a holding call on Cameron Muller. Wilder protested the call and at game’s end said he thought Muller made a fine block and didn’t hold.
After watching the replay, I agree, not that it matters.
You have to overcome tough calls, and ODU didn’t.
Coach Bobby Wilder vows his team will continue to work hard in spite of losing four in a row.
After producing an anemic 59 yards in the first half, ODU opened up its offense in the second half and began passing and moving the ball.
ODU’s first play of the half was a 29-yard pass from Smartt to Nigel Fitzgerald, and the Monarchs drove to the 25. But on first down a short gain was negated by a blindside block, moving the Monarchs back to the 40. Nick Rice then missed a 51-yard field goal.
On its next drive, ODU drove from its 47 to the WKU 32. On fourth down, Smartt then threw one of his best passes of the game, a rocket tossed on the run that was caught by Fitzgerald as he dove for the ball. It was a beautiful 11-yard gain.
Again, the play was nullified by a holding penalty and the Monarchs were forced to punt.
The defense is also young and also had untimely penalties. Yet it played more than well enough for ODU to win, holding WKU (3-2, 3-0) to 320 yards.
Things don’t get any easier. The Monarchs travel to Marshall on Saturday, and although the Thundering Herd lost at Middle Tennessee this weekend, they’re always tough to beat at home.
Then comes a road game at UAB, the defending conference champion, then a home game against Florida Atlantic, which has won three in a row.
ODU will surely be an underdog in all three.
Asked how he can bolster the morale of his team after four losses in a row, Wilder said “the number one point I made to the guys in the locker room was that we’re going to show up tomorrow. We’re going to get back to work.
“And I cannot emphasize enough right now, we’re a young team and we make a lot of young mistakes.
“The bottom line is that we have got to rally around each other. That’s the most important thing, that we rally together, stick together, understand we’re a young team.
“That’s going to be the focus moving forward. We need to stick together all week in practice and find a way to win at Marshall.”
He added that the young players have to play better.
“Even though they’re young, they’ve got to step forward,” he said. “They’ve got to develop and we’re going to work to find more ways to create an offense.”
It's a trying time for ODU football, for fans, coaches and players alike.
The players could use support from their fans, especially on social media. They need to know that fans are still behind them.
Wilder needs all the help he can get to put a productive offense on the field.
And If that doesn't happen, this will be a long season.
Contact Minium: firstname.lastname@example.org