The College’s matchup with Old Dominion was perhaps the most emotionally charged and unique contest I’ve witnessed in my three years covering this team. Massive amounts of pregame hype and rhetoric, coupled with the impending (oft-hyped) rise of the Monarchs culminated into an overwhelming gameday experience for both teams and their fans. Given that background, it becomes extremely difficult to decipher the Tribe’s airtight 21-17 victory in front of over 19,000 rabid fans in Norfolk.
One can examine in great detail the absurd first half, one in which nearly every single break went ODU’s way, and despair for the remainder of the College’s season. Or one can hone in on the squad’s mental toughness after the break, in which the Tribe clamped down defensively and dominated the remainder of the contest, despite what the final scoreline might suggest. And through it all, one has to marvel at the tenacity and ferocity of a Monarch squad that boasted no player older than a sophomore.
The truth is that Saturday night’s contest felt almost identical to the College’s 2009 upset over Virginia. In that game, a strongly favored opponent was kept out of rhythm and back on its heels by a smaller, more emotionally-charged squad playing with something to prove. Just as the College managed to hang around in Charlottesville, Old Dominion just wouldn’t go away at Foreman Field. Throughout the first half, few Tribe supporters were worried about the outcome, a concern that changed abruptly when the Monarchs took a lead into the fourth quarter. Just like Virginia, the College had luck go firmly against it, and found itself in a tight game where a blowout was expected.
Here is where the comparision’s end, and in this, perhaps something constructive can be drawn about the mindset of the 2010 William and Mary Tribe. Virginia folded last season, continuing to make mistakes, and eventually throwing away the game when B.W. Webb jumped a pass route for a game-clinching pick-six. Saturday it was Webb again ending the contest with an interception, this time with the College eking out the narrow final margin.
Say whatever you will about the first half, about the College missing field goals and turning the ball over and being hacked and provoked after the whistle ad nauseam. But with fluke plays and momentum going against it (not to mention having been thoroughly outplayed), the squad fought back in half number two. 22 seconds after intermission, Callahan needed on play to even the score at 14 points on a ducking and weaving Chase Hill catch and touchdown run. The very next drive the Tribe all but scored, with fullback Jimmy Hobson inexplicably losing the ball on his way across the goalline. A drive later, senior kicker David Miller missed his third field goal of the night, while senior tight end Gareth Hissong reeled in the game-winning touchdown catch about 15 minutes later.
Yes, all that should have happened from the start against a Monarch squad well short on experience and poise. But while most teams in the country would have refused to even go on the road to take on a program in the position of ODU’s, the College found a way to win in the end, preserving its playoff hopes, if not quite bragging rights in the budding rivalry. That in itself is significant.
It is also important to note that, without taking anything away from ODU, which made incredible strides this weekend, the final scoreline was extremely deceptive. The Tribe left at least 13 should-be guaranteed points on the field, while another 46-yard field goal was wide right. That’s 16 points which the College probably should have scored, but didn’t, and they would have changed the game from a taut affair to a blowout. While many will be alarmist about the close game, the Tribe outplayed the Monarchs decisively in the second half and were firmly the better team (as they should have been). While the end result wasn’t what the squad would have liked it to be, with momentum, energy and a hostile crowd stacked against it, it is perhaps not as bad as some might believe.
Ups and downs
The junior tailback ran with energy and purpose Saturday night, barreling over numerous ODU defenders on his way to 124 yards and a touchdown on the ground. The Monarchs had never seen a back quite like Grimes, and it showed, as the junior had defenders whiffing on tackles all night. In the first half, with senior quarterback Mike Callahan a bit inconsistent, it was Grimes who put the team on his back and kept the offense in the game.
After a slow start to the season against Massachusetts, three touchdowns last week against VMI coupled with this week’s performance have firmly indicated that Grimes is as good as ever.
ODU football (before the whistle)
What an incredible game-day atmosphere put on by the school, just three short years after it announced the return of football after a lengthy hiatus. Foreman Field is destined to become one of the better venues in the CAA, and the program looks set to sell it out indefinitely with the level of support the Monarchs have. And those fans certainly had plenty to scream about. Aside from the final result, ODU looked excellent on the field, with pitch-perfect play calling from Head Coach Bobby Wilder keeping the Tribe a step hesitant and amped-up players making the plays they needed to stay in the game. Where many were expecting a blowout, the Monarchs announced that they are well ahead of schedule as they progress toward joining the CAA full time in 2011. Playing a full slate in the nation’s toughest FCS conference, ODU will struggle next season. But it won’t be long before they are a national power.
Starting at middle linebacker for junior Jake Trantin, the sophomore did a very capable job in the center of the field, notching 11 tackles and recovering a fumble. Along with sophomore Jabrel Mines, Cook is the second backup linebacker to distinguish himself in Trantin’s absence, and the Tribe looks packed at the position with several highly regarded underclassmen awaiting their turn in the next several years.
However, the defense certainly misses Trantin, not as much in his physical attributes, but for his leadership qualities. The three-year starter is the heart and soul of the defense, and provides much of the tenacity the unit has been lacking. Out due to personal issues, it does not appear as if he will be returning soon, so the squad will have to continue to make due.
Rough week for the senior kicker/punter in his third game assuming place kicking duties. While rock-solid punting as usual, booming four punts for a 42.8-yard average, Miller missed three field goals which would have changed the nature of the game significantly. He has looked solid up to this point, so it will be instructive to keep an eye on how he recovers this week at Maine.
ODU football (after the whistle)
While not enough can be said to the impressive atmosphere and play exhibited by the Monarchs, the squad’s behavior after the whistle was reprehensible. ODU racked up six personal fouls, five for fighting or provoking the Tribe after the whistle. At halftime, several Monarch players attempted to cross the field and incite a fight with their opponents, while for much of the first half, ODU took numerous cheap shots at the College. It is a testament to the discipline of Jimmye Laycock’s program that the Tribe kept their cool throughout, but the coach didn’t mince words after the game, taking Wilder to task for the behavior of his program.
In three years covering the team, I have never heard the normally tight-lipped Laycock speak out on an opponent quite like he did after the game, which speaks to the seriousness of the situation. If ODU doesn’t correct that attitude fast, it will find itself on the receiving end of a reputation it does not want, and the victim of some awfully lopsided scores in the conference next year.
I know that the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot want to sell papers to ODU’s large fan base, and that the volume of their coverage of Old Dominion and the College will reflect that. But it’s a shame to see that factor effect the tone of their coverage as well. Both papers have been working extremely hard to manufacture a rivalry between the two schools that, while it will exist, does not yet. There is no question that this game meant a ton to the Monarchs, but for the College it is just another game. If you ask any player on the squad, which opponent they most want to beat, ODU would not be in the top five on that list. But you wouldn’t get that from coverage of the game, and that goes for nearly all parties involved.
1) Mike Callahan showed another tool in his arsenal, recovering from a shaky first quarter to post a solid game, throwing for 290 yards two touchdowns and an interception on 21 of 31 passing. The senior continues to impress, and will be called upon heavily in the coming weeks against Maine and Villanova.
2) Missing senior left tackle Keith Hill, its best lineman, the Tribe offensive line was extremely inconsistent Saturday night, especially on third down. While the squad converted a mediocroe 6 of 14 first downs, It seemed that Callahan often had very little time before being overrun by an ODU blitz. They’ll need Hill back from his hand injury in a hurry.
3) B.W. Webb’s game-clinching interception, while mostly irrelevant as it looked like ODU was going nowhere, was a heck of an athletic play. Running backwards, he leaped high over a wide receiver to come down with the football for his first pick of the year.
4) Great story for Gareth Hissong on his first career touchdown catch. With the game on the line, Callahan ran play action and found his roommate wide open in the end zone. He’ll save that ball for sure.
5) Concerns about the defensive line still exist, particularly after ODU managed 129 rushing yards and, most concerning, 8 rushing first downs. Their first real test since UMass will be at Maine this weekend, and they’ll have to be a bit better than what they’ve exhibited if the Tribe wants a win.
6) It goes without saying, but the College has to convert better in the red zone. Getting points on one of four trips is simply unacceptable, especially against Old Dominion.
7) Bobby Wilder’s play calling was extremely impressive, as he knew the exact weaknesses in the Tribe defense to have some success. It seems the College always struggles against quick passing attacks complete with screens and short passes, and they certainly had their hands full for a half.
8) This weekend’s contest at Maine is going to go a long way in determining the Tribe’s long-term success this season. With Villanova coming to town a week later and games against Delaware, James Madison, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Richmond awaiting, it is absolutely a must-win if the College hopes to return to the postseason.
9) A loss would also tarnish somewhat the Oct. 2 rematch against Villanova, a game that should be hard fought and intense on both sides. The Wildcats will not have forgotten how narrowly they reached the FCS title game last December, while the bad taste from the loss still lingers in Williamsburg.
10) The black uniforms for Old Dominion were pretty tight. Still don’t see Laycock going for anything approaching gimmick jerseys anytime soon, though.