One year after squandering an 11-point lead in the final minutes, the Monarchs tightened up and made plays in all three phases of a satisfying 31-20 win Saturday at Unitas Stadium.
“Last year we felt like they stole the conference championship from us,” ODU quarterback Taylor Heinicke said. “The whole offseason, we had a little chip on our shoulder. We were that close from getting it and we let it slip away. We felt like we needed to come up here and beat Towson. They’re a very good football team. We watched them on film. They’re one of the best teams we played, and we just came out and played a really good game.”
The seventh-ranked Monarchs (6-1, 3-1 CAA) rebounded from last week’s 38-14 pasting by Villanova, the third consecutive game in which the defense was shredded by a conference opponent.
But Saturday, against the 18th-ranked Tigers, they allowed 455 yards, but just 20 points. Towson settled for field goals early before finally gaining some offensive traction in the fourth quarter.
ODU made plays to stop Towson drives. None was bigger than cornerback Aaron Evans defending a fourth-down pass in the end zone intended for Tom Ryan, the hero of last year’s Tigers’ win. That play, with 4:26 remaining, preserved the Monarchs’ 31-20 lead and allowed them to run out the clock.
“I think we just played a lot tougher all around,” defensive tackle-turned-end Erik Saylor said. “Our defense was flying around like we have all week in practice. There was a different attitude. We just stepped it up and played a lot tougher.”
Saylor embodied the defensive effort. ODU was without three regulars on defense. End Alex Arain and linebacker Rodney Hunter were injured, and cornerback Eriq Lewis was suspended, as was wide receiver Larry Pinkard, for disciplinary reasons.
“I’m very proud of this performance,” ODU head coach Bobby Wilder said. “Obviously, we’ve been much maligned on defense, and deservedly so, with the results from New Hampshire and Richmond and last week against Villanova. So to come in here and only allow 20 points, I thought was just a tremendous effort by our defense.”
From Towson’s perspective, the Tigers’ (3-4, 2-2 CAA) offensive shortcomings were more self-inflicted than anything ODU did. They committed two turnovers in the first quarter – a fumbled kickoff return and a fluky interception as they were driving.
“There’s no way we can give up the ball twice in the first quarter,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said, “especially when one of them would have been a touchdown on our side, and blow red-zone chances like that and expect to beat a top-10 team.”
Towson also was without leading rusher Terrance West, the national freshman of the year in 2011 and the CAA’s preseason offensive player of the year. He had a death in the family recently, and Ambrose said that he was unprepared to play.
But it was ODU’s offense that set the tone, starting quickly at the beginning of each half. The Monarchs opened with a field goal drive and converted Towson’s fumbled kickoff into a short-field touchdown for a 10-0 lead before Towson had run a play.
After ODU’s defense forced Towson to go three-and-out to start the second half, the Monarchs responded with a touchdown drive on which Heinicke dashed the last 36 yards up the middle of the field as the Tigers dropped more defenders into pass coverage. That gave the Monarchs a 24-6 lead.
Heinicke accounted for 335 yards passing and running, and three touchdowns. He completed 26 of 39 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown, with an interception. He also was the Monarchs’ leading rusher with 71 net yards and two touchdowns.
“I haven’t seen anybody yet that has stopped that kid and I don’t think anybody’s going to,” Ambrose said. “No quarterback out there I’ve seen so far on film has mastery over his offense like that kid does. That’s a credit to the staff and the kid and his surrounding partners. They are truly, truly dynamic.”
Heinicke numbers were well below his season averages of 420 yards passing per game and 464.8 yards in total offense. But as Wilder pointed out, he was facing the CAA’s best defense and one of the top defenses in the Football Championship Subdivision.
“I thought his performance was outstanding,” Wilder said. “He was very smart with the ball. … I thought he was on his reads all night. I thought he did an excellent job with the ball. He threw the ball away when he needed to.
“We had a few drops in there, but I can’t look back on maybe one or two of all the pass plays we called where he wasn’t on his read and throwing his ball where he needed to. He played the game he had to play for us to win.”
The Monarchs’ lead and Towson’s mistakes combined to take the Tigers out their offensive comfort zone. They are run-first, with approximately a 60-40 run-pass percentage ratio. Playing from behind, and without West, they threw 41 passes and had just 26 runs.
“They came up here tonight with an attitude and a mindset,” Wilder said, “that we were going to play much better than we did last week.”