NORFOLK — Chris Burnette had the worst possible vantage point for Old Dominion's playoff loss at Georgia Southern last December: the sideline, standing alongside the coaches.
Three plays into last year's FCS second-round game, the Monarchs' starting defensive tackle got caught in a pileup that caused his left arm to go numb. He was a spectator the rest of the afternoon, as Dominique Swope and Georgia Southern's triple option offense shredded the Monarchs' defense in a 55-48 shootout.
"It crushed me," Burnette said this week, as ODU (11-1) prepares for the Eagles in an FCS quarterfinal. "I even tried to go back out there. I thought it was a deep bruise, but I had no strength in my arm and couldn't use it. I was on the sideline trying to keep guys positive and telling them what I was seeing, but it just crushed me, not being out there helping my teammates."
Burnette hopes to atone for last year's absence, and the Monarchs' defense again faces a major challenge in Saturday's noon game at S.B. Ballard Stadium, which will be televised by ESPN.
The Monarchs are confident that quarterback Taylor Heinicke and the nation's leading offense can score. The issue is whether they will have to outscore Georgia Southern, and if ODU's defense can slow the Eagles at all.
Georgia Southern (9-3) and its triple option lead FCS in rushing, averaging 393.2 yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry. Quarterback Jerick McKinnon has rushed for 1,478 yards and 15 touchdowns, with 316 yards and two scores in last week's 24-16 win against Central Arkansas.
"He's an all-conference running back who happens to play quarterback," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said.
Last season, Swope gashed the Monarchs for 255 yards and two touchdowns, as the Eagles piled up 477 yards rushing and never punted.
"I thought we played a little timid," Burnette said. "We waited too much, rather than attacking."
Days after that game, Wilder overhauled his defensive staff. He fired coordinator Andy Rondeau and assistant Jarod Dodson, and moved offensive line coach Bill Dee to coordinator and receivers coach Keita Malloy to the secondary.
Wilder and the staff also implemented a plan for defending the triple option. Few programs employ that scheme in the present spread-offense, pass-happy climate, but it had given the Monarchs problems whenever they faced it.
ODU devoted practice sessions specifically to defend it last spring and again during summer camp, though none of its regular season opponents used it. The Monarchs did so on the chance that they might face Georgia Southern or Wofford or Cal Poly in the playoffs this season, or perhaps Navy or Georgia Tech in the future.
After facing Georgia Southern last season, and with a week of preparation, the Monarchs believe that they are better prepared for the triple option this time. Dee, the players said, simplified the scheme and emphasized tackling.
Defending it requires discipline and patience, as well as good tackling. The Monarchs' scout team also has tried to simulate the cut-blocking — dropping down and trying to take out defenders' legs — that's a big part of triple-option blocking.
"Any time you play an option team or a Wing-T team, you have to get used to it," Dee said. "You can't simulate the speed of it in practice. They're going to move the ball on you, they're going to make plays. You can't get discouraged. You have to keep playing and you have to stick to your assignments."
ODU linebacker Craig Wilkins said that Georgia Southern might run the triple option better than Georgia Tech. Eagles' head coach Jeff Monken is a disciple of Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson.
Wilkins, the Monarchs' leading tackler, will be critical in slowing down Georgia Southern and will spend a lot of time face-to-face with McKinnon.
"Some plays I'll tackle him, some I'll try to force him to make a decision," Wilkins said. "My job is to make the read for him as hard as possible."
Reminded that Georgia Southern attempts only about eight passes per game, Wilder responded, only partly in jest, "And on all eight of them I'll be holding my breath."
Defenses, and defensive backs, place so much emphasis on stopping the run that they can be susceptible to deep pass plays. In the past six games, the Eagles averaged only seven pass attempts. In a win against Wofford, they didn't attempt a pass.
Georgia Southern's two leading receivers have eight receptions all season — a decent day for ODU's pass catchers. But four receivers average better than 25 yards per catch, and Zach Walker averages an absurd 37.9 yards per reception, with three touchdowns.
"Last year, they were able to run and throw," Wilkins said. "They're going to run the ball, but you can't let them pass on you, as well. If they do, it's going to be a long day."
Indeed, in addition to their 477 yards rushing, the Eagles' Jaybo Shaw completed 7 of 11 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown. McKinnon, who didn't become the starter until game five, isn't as efficient a passer, completing only 46 percent of his throws.
"But he's a great athlete," Wilkins said. "We have to assume he can throw the ball pretty well."
The Monarchs hope to make Georgia Southern throw when it has to, not when it wants to.
"The key is playing fast and tackling, not being hesitant," Burnette said. "A lot of teams are watching and waiting, then they get cut, and guys go by them. It's an offense that's designed to grind you out and show how disciplined your defense is. You need to be disciplined against this offense."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun