NORFOLK — The unit likely never will be compared favorably to the '85 Chicago Bears.
But when it absolutely had to make plays, the oft-maligned Old Dominion defense stiffened just enough to key the sixth-ranked Monarchs' 31-26 victory over No. 20 Delaware on Saturday at rain-soaked Ballard Stadium.
The victory put the Monarchs (7-1, 4-1 CAA) on the verge of securing a Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth, according to head coach Bobby Wilder.
"I've always felt that in this league, if you can get to eight victories you're probably going to be asked to continue to play," Wilder said.
The Monarchs took the field boasting one of the FCS's most explosive offenses, and its potency was only slightly diminished by the wet, windy conditions and a resourceful Blue Hens defense. Monarchs quarterback Taylor Heinicke delivered 375 yards on 36 of 45 passing, although even he was surprised to add in a career-high three rushing scores.
"Don't expect that again any time soon," deadpanned Heinicke, who estimated his last three-TD effort on the ground came as a middle school running back. "That was a one-time thing."
Former Phoebus High star Tyree Lee punctuated his starting debut at running back with a career-high 128 yards and produced the Monarchs' fourth touchdown on a 9-yard run. And Nick Mayers led ODU receivers with 11 catches for 131 yards, but was so chagrined with a few mistakes, including a first-quarter fumble, that he termed the effort "probably the worst game I've ever played in my entire life, by far."
The Monarchs needed plays made on both sides of the ball to hold off the desperate Blue Hens (5-3, 2-3), though. And although it was gashed repeatedly between the 20s, ODU's defense continually bared teeth when pinned against its own end zone.
•With the game tied at 14 late in the first half, the Monarchs stuffed two running plays for two yards from their own 12, then had defensive end Preston Smith force Delaware quarterback Trent Hurley to fire the ball out of the end zone on third down. The Blue Hens had to settle for a 27-yard field goal; Heinicke promptly led the Monarchs on a 78-yard touchdown drive to send ODU into the half with a 21-17 lead.
•With the Blue Hens at the ODU 15 early in the second half, defensive tackle Erik Saylor dropped Hurley for a 15-yard loss. The Blue Hens punted from the Monarchs' 30.
•Late in the third quarter, the Monarchs limited Delaware to just two yards in three plays from the ODU six. Delaware settled for a 28-yard field goal.
"The fact that they were 3 for 6 in the red zone scoring touchdowns, that was the different in the ballgame," Wilder said. "We were able to get the quarterback out of the pocket and didn't allow much in the way of rushing yards once they got down there."
A second chance gave the Monarchs' defense the opportunity to deliver another big play. After a Blue Hens two-point conversion that would have tied the game at 28 was negated by an illegal motion penalty, Saylor sacked Hurley on the re-try to preserve the Monarchs' two-point edge.
Ironically, it was Saylor that kept Delaware's touchdown drive alive with a facemask penalty on Hurley on a 2nd-and-15 play at the Delaware 2.
"I had to redeem myself," Saylor said.
The Monarchs needed these kinds of plays to subdue a Blue Hens team that was essentially playing to stay in the conference title chase. Delaware managed to bother Heinicke at times with confusing blitz packages and hung around despite the loss of feature running back Andrew Pierce. Pierce, the CAA's third-leading rusher entering the game, ran for 69 yards in the first half but injured his knee on the first play after intermission and did not return.
Even with Pierce sidelined, the Blue Hens rallied from a 28-17 deficit to get to within two. Jarod Brown's 29-yard field goal with 4:25 to play gave the Monarchs their winning margin, but victory wasn't secure until Devon Simmons picked off a Hurley pass at the ODU 49 with less than a minute remaining.
"We've played the toughest schedule so far in the CAA; this was the fifth straight team (we've played) that was a potential playoff team," Wilder said. "I could not be more pleased to get through this stretch of games at 4-1."