NORFOLK — Bobby Wilder's football mind is a sunny obstacle course with creamsicles at poolside for those who successfully navigate the razor wire, gunfire and games of chance with guys named Slim.
Old Dominion's head football coach is a comfortable and willing risk taker, though he explained that his curious decision to attempt a third onside kick in the waning minutes of Saturday's 59-58 win against The Citadel wasn't a blindfolded walk through the cobra pit.
"I felt like that was going to give us the best chance to win," Wilder said Monday during his weekly chat with reporters, in advance of Saturday's 6 p.m. home game versus Albany.
A brief recap: The Monarchs (2-2) scored to take a 59-52 lead with 3:36 remaining, in a game in which both defenses spent an inordinate amount of time chasing from behind.
ODU already had executed two successful onside kicks in the third quarter, which helped to extend a three-point lead to 51-38.
The Monarchs couldn't pull off the third, and The Citadel recovered on the ODU 43-yard line. With a 5-yard penalty tacked on, The Citadel drive started at the ODU 38. Five plays and two ODU timeouts later, the Bulldogs scored to cut the lead to 59-58, with 1:39 remaining.
The Citadel elected to go for two points and the lead, but ODU defensive back Reggie Owens stopped quarterback Ben Dupree just shy of the goal line. The Monarchs recovered The Citadel's predictable onside kick attempt and ran out the clock.
Wilder's decision to try the third onside kick red-lined the Unwise Tactic-o-meter for a slew of football observers. Several statistical analyses put the chances of recovering a surprise onside kick at somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. The Monarchs already had beaten the odds by recovering two, so the chances of getting a third were slim.
Wilder's reasoning was as follows: "I felt like, No. 1, if we recovered it, game's over. We're going to win the game right there. Number two, if we don't recover it, if The Citadel recovers it, then two things are going to happen: Either we're going to stop 'em and win the game; or if they score, I can use my timeouts within that drive and there would be enough time left where we could come back and score to win the game."
Giving The Citadel offense a short field with an unsuccessful onside kick attempt further stressed an ODU defense that gave up 453 yards rushing and hadn't forced a punt all night. Why not at least make the Bulldogs go 75 or 80 yards?
"My whole thought process was," Wilder said, "either we're going to stop them and win the game or, if they've got to go 75, if they go all the way, 75 yards, it's probably going to drain all the clock. And then there's not even an option to come back and try and score again."
He pointed out that The Citadel burned up nearly two minutes, even with two ODU timeouts, going just 38 yards for the potential tying or go-ahead score. Had the Bulldogs kicked the extra point to tie, or made the two-point conversion to go ahead, ODU still had 1:39 and one timeout remaining.
"In that situation, that's something we practice all the time," Wilder said. "I didn't have any doubt in my mind if we had to, we could go whatever we needed to, to get the distance to either score a touchdown or get Jared Brown in field-goal range."
Wilder's tactics may be debatable. What's not is the continued struggles by ODU's young, inexperienced defense. The Monarchs are allowing an average of 44 points and 524.8 yards per game. Opponents are converting 64 percent on third down.
Indeed, Wilder went for two onside kicks versus The Citadel precisely because his defense was getting shredded. He was trying to give his offense more possessions, and take away possessions from the Bulldogs.
ODU's defensive issues place more pressure on quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the offense, which was just a shade better than a Citadel team that struggled to defeat Southern Conference bottom feeder Western Carolina.
Wilder said that the defensive players continue to compete and play hard, if not always well. He said that the offense remains supportive of the defense and that the team is unified.
"The most important thing that happens is, the kids really rally around each other," Wilder said. "Now, our guys on defense, they're not deaf. They hear the comments. They hear things from outside the organization.
"But what's critical from my standpoint is to make sure everything they hear from inside our team is, 'Hey, everybody's got everybody's back; we're going to stick together, no matter what happens, and we're going to get better as a team,' and that's what I'm seeing right now from our kids, which is really encouraging."
Wilder's glass is consistently half-full, even if he occasionally carries it through a minefield while dodging blowgun darts. The risks might outweigh the rewards for a while.
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun