NORFOLK — The quarterback suffered a concussion, one of his most reliable protectors needs surgery, offensive execution was sub-standard, and defense saved the day. Other than that, Old Dominion's performance against Liberty followed the usual script.
Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder, a man who would praise the airbags after a car crash, found much to recommend from ODU's 21-17 win Saturday against the Flames.
"A character-building win for our team," Wilder said Monday at his weekly gabfest with reporters.
The Monarchs (4-2) scored 28 points below their average and needed two touchdowns in the final five minutes to come from behind against a Liberty team that flummoxed them for much of the game.
But the big takeaway from Monday's session was Wilder's revelation that franchise quarterback Taylor Heinicke suffered a mild concussion during the game.
It occurred early in the fourth quarter, on one of ODU's several empty trips in scoring territory. On 2nd-and-goal from the Liberty 7-yard line, Heinicke ran toward the left pylon. Instead of getting out of bounds, he lowered his shoulder as he lunged forward and collided with Liberty defender Walt Aikens.
Heinicke remained in the game — he threw the winning touchdown pass to Blair Roberts with 28 seconds remaining and completed 39 of 52 passes for 450 yards and two touchdowns. Wilder said that Heinicke exhibited no discomfort or concussion-like symptoms during or immediately after the game. He was lucid and conversant in post-game interviews.
But after Heinicke returned to his apartment and spoke to family members, he said that he didn't feel right. He called quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb and told him the same thing. Whitcomb relayed the info to Wilder, who instructed him to go to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where ODU medical staff diagnosed him with a mild concussion.
Wilder said that Heinicke told him Sunday and Monday morning that he felt much better and had no lingering effects. He said that medical staff informed him that last year's Payton Award winner as the best offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision would be available if the Monarchs played next Saturday. They're idle and don't play again until Oct. 19 at Pittsburgh.
The news wasn't so promising for senior lineman David Born. The 6-foot-8, 330-pound left guard, a three-year starter on the line, will have arthroscopic surgery on both knees Wednesday and is expected to miss a minimum of three weeks.
Born's knees had been bothering him recently, and after starting Saturday, he spent much of the game on the sideline. True freshman Tyler Fisher took his place versus Liberty and will be in the mix to start in Born's absence, though Wilder said there will be competition and didn't rule out some juggling along the line.
That's not good news for an offense that's experienced some slippage of late. ODU's point production obviously was down versus Liberty. The Monarchs converted only 1 of 6 chances in the red zone, after converting 97 percent (30-for-31) in the first five games. The run game was pedestrian, at best. Heinicke's protection wasn't exactly airtight, given that the Flames rarely blitzed and often played six- and seven-man pass coverage packages.
"I felt like, offensively, it started last week," Wilder said. "I know a lot of people were surprised when we scored 66 points against Albany and put up however-many yards. But our execution was not at the level it needed to be and that really hurt us in this game, particularly in the red zone, offensively."
As the offense failed to convert, it was left to the defense to prevent Liberty from extending the lead. Though ODU gave up 401 yards, the Flames' last five possessions were a forced fumble, three punts, and a pass knocked down in the end zone on the game's final play.
"Our kids are gaining confidence and they're gaining confidence because they're much more knowledgeable of what Coach Nagy's scheme is, defensively," Wilder said, referring to defensive coordinator Rich Nagy. "They're much more knowledgeable and adaptable to adjustments that he makes within the game.
"Those first four weeks, any sort of adjustment was, No. 1, few and far between, and No. 2, was sometimes painful to watch. The last two weeks, we had the ability to grab a greasepen on the sideline and make some in-game adjustments and the kids have responded."
Wilder said that the confidence might have begun with stopping a late two-point conversion attempt by The Citadel in a 59-58 win during which the defense stopped little else.
"The energy in the locker room after the game after the game, the energy in here Sunday in our team meeting, and the energy in the defensive meeting was as good as I've felt since I've been here," Wilder said. "And that doesn't by any stretch mean we've arrived, because we haven't. We're going to go up to Pittsburgh and it's going to be very difficult. But they're feeling much better about themselves. The No. 1 thing I've learned with young people, in my 26 years of coaching, is that confidence is as important as anything."
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