NORFOLK — After three games against three markedly different opponents, with three wildly different results, Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder thinks he has a handle on his team's capabilities.
The schedule pendulum swung the other way as the Monarchs torched outmanned Howard 76-19 last Saturday. That followed a pair of season-opening losses to Football Bowl Subdivision teams East Carolina and Maryland — one competitive, the other not so much.
"I think we are a solid football team when we don't make mistakes," Wilder said Monday at his weekly press gabfest. "I think we would be very competitive against all five of those FBS team we're playing, when we don't turn the ball over and make mistakes.
"That was already proven at East Carolina. Obviously, we were very competitive in that game. The Maryland game showed the stage we're at right now when we make mistakes, when we turn the ball over, when we miss a lot of assignments, we're going to get exposed. I'm hoping with our progress here over the next four weeks, the next time around, it'll look different, in terms of our presentation.
"But right now, we're a good, solid football team that's trying to grow up really fast."
ODU (1-2) has three more FBS opponents: Pittsburgh, Idaho and North Carolina. Before that, however, comes a four-week stretch of home games against FCS teams, the second of which is The Citadel (1-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday at S.B. Ballard Stadium.
Wilder said that the Howard win might be the best game his team has ever played. The head Monarch isn't above some spin and hyperbole, especially for a young team that sought confidence after two opening losses.
But Wilder said that the way his team won was exceptional: touchdowns on the first seven possessions; 514 yards of offense in the first half; plus-five turnover margin; only 10 points allowed by the first defensive unit.
Yes, Howard is a mid-level Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team, but Wilder pointed out that the Bison also led FBS Eastern Michigan in the fourth quarter before losing 34-24.
Howard piled up 321 of its 465 yards in a first half in which it ran 51 plays. ODU's defense couldn't get off the field in the first half, as Howard converted 8 of 11 times on third down. The Monarchs also scored quickly — five of seven touchdown drives in the first half took two minutes or less.
ODU also continues to substitute liberally on defense, in an attempt to develop depth under new coordinator Rich Nagy. The Monarchs' fast-paced and quick-strike offense often stresses its defense, putting defenders on the field for more plays.
"I feel like we're so much better on offense, and what we needed more than anything on defense was some confidence," Wilder said. "We needed to have some success. We needed those guys to see that and believe what Coach Nagy and the (defensive) staff was telling them."
ODU's defense must be on point this week, as well, against The Citadel's triple-option offense — a scheme that's given the Monarchs fits. Georgia Southern, which runs a similar scheme, rushed for 602 yards in a playoff win last year and 477 yards in a 2011 playoff win.
"It's a difficult scheme, from the standpoint that you just don't see it on a regular basis," Wilder said. "You don't recruit players that run it. So when you're trying to simulate it in practice, it's hard. That's what makes you the most uncomfortable as a coach, because you want to dot every I and cross every T as a coach, every detail of the game plan. It makes you very uncomfortable when you can't practice the offense at the speed you'd like to practice it. One of the things we try to do here is, every week when we're playing somebody, we try to simulate the speed as best we can. This one is nearly impossible to simulate the speed."
Wilder pays attention to other games and results, but puts little credibility in the transitive property of comparing scores against common opponents. He came away from the Maryland and East Carolina games thinking both could be good teams. He watched the Terps go 3-0 and ECU (2-1) take Virginia Tech to the wire last Saturday.
"I'd like to think when you compare the teams that we've played and you keep looking particularly at the FBS opponents, down the road, that might give us a sense of where we are," he said. "I don't think it's going to change my opinion a lot, because I've already got a pretty good idea of where we are right now, but it'll be interesting to follow."
Dave Fairbank can be reached at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun