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BULLS HEAD SOUTH AS MAC LEADERS IN OFFENSE, 2-TD FAVORITES
There are brighter days ahead for ODU's football program. Saturday is not likely to be one of them.
News From The UB Universe
He’s not just a kicker, he’s a bright young man: sophomore K Alex McNulty was one of 19 Buffalo athletes named to the Mid-American Conference list of Distinguished Scholar-Athletes. McNulty is a Biology and Physics major with a 3.7 GPA. That’s impressive. McNulty is also a mere eight points behind Dallas Pelz for fourth place on the school’s all-time list of scoring by a kicker.
The Bulls’ athletic department has its own writeup of the upcoming Old Dominion game. Some interesting tidbits include:
DE Taylor Riggins is tied for the MAC lead in sacks with four.
The Bulls lead the MAC and are 12th nationally in third-down conversions (54.9%).
Despite its 1-2 record, Buffalo leads the MAC in both scoring offense (32.3 points per game) and scoring defense (21 ppg). Starting the season with a 69-7 win will help skew those stats a bit.
Also, did you know Norfolk is nicknamed the Mermaid City? I did not.
Rachel Lenzi of The Buffalo News takes a look at the relationship between UB Tight Ends Coach Ron Whitcomb and former Old Dominion star Taylor Heinicke, who visits Buffalo this weekend as the somewhat unlikely starting QB for the Washington Football Team.
Tim Riordan begins his preview of the Bulls-Monarchs showdown by noting that ODU has “been blown out by two pretty good football teams.” This is factually correct, and we will dig into that ourselves shortly. He adds that Old Dominion has “a two-headed beast in the backfield,” which sounds frightening.
Here it is: the requisite Mermaid City (eh?) homecoming story about Kevin Marks, Isaiah King, and Khamron Laborn. “This is actually a big thing for me,” King, a senior cornerback, admitted.
BULLetPoints has its preview Saturday’s game up on its Twitter page.
Don’t forget to check out UB In 5’s own story on the brewing UB-ODU recruiting rivalry, as well.
Scouting Old Dominion
The Monarchs are 1-2 this season and, like Buffalo, have two losses against fairly high-profile teams.
Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Folks, we aspire to be more than a .500 team, so we should know ourselves and our enemy. People are still reading Art of War after 7,000 years so it’s probably solid advice to follow.
Let’s take a look at ODU’s season to date.
Game 1: Wake Forest 42, Old Dominion 10
Pete Fiutak of College Football News asked, before the season began, “Is this the golden age of Wake Forest football?” He ultimately decided the answer was no (can’t beat those Peahead Walker teams from the late ‘40s!) but the Demon Deacons have five consecutive bowl appearances after seven years in the wilderness. They’re 3-0 and getting votes for the AP Top 25.
Back to the point: tough start for the Monarchs, figuratively and literally. Wake scored 35 unanswered points to take a 42-3 fourth-quarter lead at Truist Field in Winston-Salem.
ODU earned the first touchdown of head coach Ricky Rahne’s reign when redshirt freshman QB Hayden Wolff tossed a nine-yard TD pass to TE Isaiah Spencer in the waning minutes of the contest.
Starting QB DJ Mack, Jr., a high-profile transfer from the University of Central Florida, finished with 39 passing yards and was sacked twice.
RBs Elijah Davis and Blake Watson combined to rush for 132 yards on 27 carries, and Stone Smartt—a converted QB—had three receptions for 26 yards.
Senior LB Jordan Young led ODU with nine tackles while junior CB Tre Hawkins III had eight stops, including three for losses.
The game boiled down to big plays: Wake took its first lead on a 48-yard TD run by Christian Beal-Smith, and then answered an ODU field goal in the final seconds of the first quarter with a 99-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kickoff.
Less than three minutes later, the Deacons hit on a 36-yard touchdown pass from QB Sam Hartman to WR A.T. Perry, and the rout was on.
“My team, as good as I think they are ... we just didn’t play as well as we could today,” Rahne told The Associated Press. “And we’re going to play better.”
Game 2: Old Dominion 47, Hampton 7
Ah, the old “get right” game against an FCS opponent.
It was the Monarchs’ turn to run up a big lead, jumping out to a 41-0 third-quarter advantage en route to a 47-7 dismantling of the Pirates in ODU’s home opener.
Old Dominion set a school record with 358 rushing yards in the win.
Freshman RB Jon-Luke Peaker—a 5’9, 190-lb Philadelphia product—rushed for 144 yards on 18 carries, and Davis added another 108 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Mack, Jr. showed the playmaking ability he displayed in the Sunshine State with 162 passing yards, 61 rushing yards, and four total TDs.
Six-foot-eight, 245-lb. TE Zack Kuntz led all ODU receivers with 61 yards on three catches, while Spencer added his second receiving TD of the season.
Jaren Rainey led Old Dominion with 12 tackles as the defense forced Hampton into eight punts.
“It was important for us to go out and play well,” Rahne remarked after his first victory as ODU’s coach. “And we did that. Hampton has got a good-looking team. Their coaches have done a nice job. But our guys played really, really hard tonight and were able to neutralize them a bit. Our defense played so great. To be able to play as hard and fast as they did was awesome.”
Game 3: Liberty 45, Old Dominion 17
Well, Liberty’s pretty good.
The Flames flicker at the very fringe of the AP Top 25, and QB Malik Willis is a legitimate Heisman contender. On this particular evening, it was impossible to stop the star—Willis threw for 242 yards and four TDs, and rushed for another 104 yards and two more TDs.
Apparently there was some bulletin board material before the game: Dave Walls of WSET.com in Lynchburg, Virginia had this anecdote:
Entering Saturday night's matchup at Williams Stadium, Old Dominion safety Harrell Blackmon giggled when talking about the Monarchs' preparation for Liberty QB Malik Willis. "Right now, we just focused on preparing...like, coach talked about, you know, keeping the quarterback contained."
When pressed for more thoughts about the dynamic Flames QB, Blackmon said, "I mean, he's a good guy once he gets out the pocket, but I don't think he can pass the ball that good,” before laughing to himself.
But after Saturday's 45-17 Liberty win, it was only the Flames players and fans who were left with smiles on their faces.
Yikes. The Monarchs, however, did not abdicate bloodlessly! ODU was down a respectable 28-17 at halftime after Mack, Jr. capped a 75-yard drive in the final minutes of the first half with a 30-yard TD pass to the giant-sized TE Kuntz.
It would be Old Dominion’s final score of the game, unfortunately, as Willis tacked on two second half TDs and K Alex Barbir knocked in a 31-yard FG for the final 45-17 score.
Mack, Jr. was 15-for-27 with 134 passing yards, a TD, and an interception. He was sacked five times.
Davis and Peaker combined to rush for 84 yards and a TD. Kuntz had 60 receiving yards on four catches.
The defense, while harassed relentlessly by Willis, did have six tackles for losses. Redshirt junior LB Ryan Henry led the team with nine total tackles.
“That's a very good football team with a quarterback who is getting recognition as a first round draft pick and it's warranted,” Rahne told ODUsports.com. “He was especially good throwing in the pocket. Everyone is going to look at all the very special plays he made with his feet and say that was the difference in the game, but it was really how well he threw in the pocket that was the difference.”
Nice job on the subtext by Rahne, defending his player (and, by proxy, himself) with the complimentary words on Willis’ pocket presence. Tough game, overall, for the Monarchs.
So what have we learned about Old Dominion?
First, don’t trash-talk Malik Willis. Second, if you take the old adage of throwing out a team’s best game and worst game to see who they really are, you’re left with Liberty—a contest in which the Monarchs were clearly overmatched, but refused to quit.
ODU’s offense even managed to make a little hay against the Flames, an opponent that has allowed, on average, the eighth-fewest yards per game in the country.
Still, the spread for this game is Buffalo -13.5.
If we hold UB to the same standard as above, we throw out the Bulls’ best game (Wagner), worst game (Nebraska), and we’re left with last week’s three-point loss to Coastal Carolina.
Does that make Buffalo a clearly better team than ODU? Well, how does Coastal compare to Liberty?
The Chanticleers are ranked, but lost (barely) to the Flames in last year’s Cure Bowl.
We can go down this rabbit hole for quite a while, folks.
Buffalo should win on Saturday—just don’t expect it to be the cakewalk that the line suggests. This game will be a much more solid barometer for the strength of the ODU program, whose first goal must be to become competitive within Conference USA, then its previous three opponents.
For the Bulls, it’s a chance to bank a win before the MAC season begins in October, starting with what will likely be a tough game against Western Michigan and its talented QB Kaleb Eleby. It’ll be interesting to see what it takes for Buffalo to put Old Dominion away—assuming they can.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Your MAC Leaders
Speaking of the MAC, where do things stand statistically with our fellow Mid-Americans?
A quick rundown of the leaders and losers:
Total Offense: Hey! After three games, UB leads the MAC in total yards per game with 1,336 for a 445.3 per-game average. Buffalo is followed by Kent State (432.7) and Central Michigan (424.7). At the bottom is Bowling Green, posting 291.7 total yards per contest.
Passing: Central Michigan had a “fierce” preseason QB battle between Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon and redshirt freshman Daniel Richardson. That challenge worked, apparently, because after three games with Sirmon at the helm, CMU leads the MAC with 252.3 passing yards per game. Toledo (245) and WMU (240.7) are close behind. Northern Illinois, a true rushing team, only throws for 138 yards per game, even with Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi under center.
Rushing: Kent State’s #FlashFAST offense hasn’t really taken off this season (in fairness, the Golden Flashes have faced both #5 Iowa and #7 Texas A&M) but KSU does lead the MAC with 266 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Marquez Cooper has 199 rushing yards and averages over six yards per carry. Bowling Green, on the other hand, ekes out a measly 53 yards on the ground per contest.
Turnovers: Again, the Flashes are on top—Kent State has nine interceptions (senior CB Elvis Hines has three) and averages +2 turnovers per game. That’s fifth in FBS. Ball State, on the other end of the spectrum, has the eight-worst margin in the country at -1.67. The Cardinals don’t turn the ball over much (five total), but have only one takeaway of their own.
3rd Down Conversions: Buffalo’s at the top of the conference with a .548 conversion efficiency, well ahead of Central Michigan (.471) and Western Michigan (.469). Bowling Green is in big trouble when hitting third down—the Falcons convert at a .282 clip.
Total: Toledo leads the conference in total defense, surrendering 346.7 yards per game. Miami (Ohio), despite facing (and giving up a combined 80 points to) #8 Cincinnati and a solid Minnesota team, is second in total defense at 348.8 yards allowed per game. Again, this shows how FCS games can skew these early season stats—the RedHawks gave up just 216 yards in their 42-7 win over Long Island, one of the newest and rawest teams in the FCS.
Passing: Bowling Green has the top passing defense in the conference to date, averaging 177.7 passing yards against this season. The Falcons were trounced by Tennessee (ESPN RPI: 55), 38-6, in their season opener, played South Alabama (ESPN RPI: 108) close in a 22-19 loss, and beat FCS Murray State, 27-10, handily last weekend. It’s not as though BGSU has a terrible run defense, either—at 171.3 rushing yards allowed per game, the Falcons are almost in the dead center of the MAC pack. The early season is strange indeed.
Rushing: Central Michigan’s allowing 130.3 rushing yards per game, a 20-yard improvement over second-place Western Michigan. A bit more intuitively than the BGSU example, the Chips are second-to-last in passing yards allowed at 223.3 (Ball State is dead last in passing defense at 277 yards per game against). NIU’s been gouged for 248 rushing yards per game, although the 63-10 loss to #19 Michigan, in which the Huskies gave up 373 rushing yards, will kill the three-game average.
Points Allowed: The Bulls are the stingiest team in the conference, allowing 21 points per game—take out the Wagner win and they’ve allowed 28 points per game against both Nebraska and Coastal Carolina, which would still be seventh in the conference. NIU’s been toasted for 63 by Michigan and 50 by Wyoming. The Huskies allow an average of 44.7 points per game.
The MAC Weekend Ahead
We get our first conference matchup and a final run-through of non-conference opponents until bowl season. Exciting stuff! Here’s what’s on tap Saturday:
Bowling Green at Minnesota (-31). 12 p.m., ESPNU
FIU at Central Michigan (-10). 12 p.m., ESPN+
Miami (Ohio) at Army (-8.5). 12 p.m., CBSSN
Ohio at Northwestern (-14.5). 12 p.m., BTN
San Jose State at Western Michigan (-2.5). 2 p.m., ESPN+
Texas State at Eastern Michigan (-6.5). 2 p.m., ESPN+
Toledo (-5) at Ball State. 2 p.m., ESPN+
Maine at NIU (-24.5). 2:30 p.m., ESPN3
Kent State at Maryland (-14.5). 3:30 p.m., BTN
Buffalo (-13.5) at Old Dominion. 6 p.m., ESPN+
Akron at #10 Ohio State (-48.5). 7:30 p.m., BTN
If you want my picks this week, you have to follow me on Twitter: @bkirst77
That’s all for today! I’ll be in attendance at the ODU game this Saturday. Looking forward to the four-hour drive to Norfolk from Northern Virginia because traffic always flows smoothly on I-95, especially on the weekend. Go Bulls!