NORFOLK — Thirteen months ago, Old Dominion's team captains went to head coach Bobby Wilder with a concern. Preparing for their first Colonial Athletic Association game, at Delaware, they had a vibe that not all of their teammates thought they could compete.
Delaware was a conference and national power. The Blue Hens had played for the national championship the previous December, a game the Monarchs' players had studied. ODU's program, meanwhile, was in just its third year of existence, with a roster full of players unfamiliar with the best top-to-bottom conference in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Wilder called a team meeting and tried to assure the players of what he believed.
"I said, 'Look guys, I'm 100 percent confident we can go up there and beat Delaware,'" Wilder recalled Monday. "They put their pants on the same as you guys, they come out on the field same as us. We're as good a football team as they are.
"We had a confidence issue going into that game last year as a program, and the biggest issue we had was the fear of the unknown. That was what our players had. They respected Delaware to the level that it took away from their own confidence."
ODU not only competed that day in Newark, the Monarchs led well into the fourth quarter. Delaware needed a handful of big plays late to pull out a 27-17 win.
Fast-forward 13 months, and 17 games. The Monarchs again prepare to face Delaware, noon Saturday at S.B. Ballard Stadium in the Oyster Bowl. But the program is in a very different place.
ODU tied for second in its first season as a competing CAA member and earned a trip to the playoffs. This season the Monarchs (6-1, 3-1 CAA) are a top-10 team in the thick of the CAA title race again.
They are on their way out the FCS door to the Football Bowl Subdivision next season. But until then, they field one of the nation's most prolific offenses.
They no longer are intimidated by any CAA or FCS opponent against which they line up.
"What happened from that game," Wilder said, "is I worked really hard after that game to turn that negative into a positive, by trying to say to our players, I told you, you were this good, I told you you could compete with the best teams in the country."
One week later, the Monarchs came home and defeated 20th-ranked UMass 48-33. They scored 23 consecutive points in a 15-minute span of the third and fourth quarters to take control, behind a green-as-grass freshman quarterback named Taylor Heinicke, who relieved injured starter Thomas DeMarco after halftime.
"Our confidence actually grew from that loss at Delaware, because our players went, OK, we can play with the best teams in the country," Wilder said. "Now we've seen it. And then to come home and beat UMass 48-33, that really propelled us from a confidence standpoint."
Coincidentally, the Monarchs enter this test against Delaware (5-2, 2-2 CAA) after weathering a different sort of crisis. They rebounded from the most lopsided loss in the program's brief history, to Villanova (38-14) nine days ago, and bounced defending champ and preseason favorite Towson 31-20 Saturday in suburban Baltimore.
Most notably, the Monarchs started fast at the beginning of both halves and were much more effective on defense. They led 10-0 before Towson ran a play, and built a 24-6 lead after the first drive of the second half.
On defense, ODU held the Tigers to just six points through nearly three quarters. The Monarchs surrendered 455 yards, but made a couple of critical fourth-down stops, including one in the end zone in the fourth quarter as Towson threatened to make it a one-score game.
The Monarchs had allowed an average of 45 points and 551 yards in three previous CAA games.
Wilder said that the defense tackled better and played much more physically than in recent weeks. The Monarchs, he said, were averaging about 25 missed tackles per game prior to Towson and cut that number to roughly eight.
"We hadn't played that physical all year," Wilder said. "I could hear the pads down on the sideline, I could hear how emotional and charged up we were on defense. It felt to me like it was a bunch of kids who got tired of hearing that they were the reason. They just got tired of it.
"Now their challenge is going to be: Can you do that two weeks in a row? Can you do it now against arguably the best running back in the country (Delaware's Andrew Pierce), who's coming in here Saturday? That's going to be the challenge for those kids."
ODU continues to assemble its 2013 football schedule, with Monday's announcement that it will face Rhode Island at home on Nov. 2. Last week it was revealed that ODU would travel to Idaho for the first game of a home-and-home series next Nov. 9.
The Monarchs now have six games lined up in their first year as a transition FBS program. They have home games against URI and Charlotte (Nov. 16) and road games at Maryland (Sept. 7), at North Carolina (Oct. 12), at Norfolk State (Oct. 26) and at Idaho.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun