NORFOLK — Replay this tournament, and Old Dominion might well win the national championship. That's how potent the Monarchs' air raid offense was.
Replay it again, and ODU certainly could exit immediately. That's how suspect the Monarchs' defense was.
Saturday, ODU's Achilles' heel ruptured at the worst possible time, in the fourth quarter of a compelling Football Championship Subdivision playoff quarterfinal.
"It's not on the kids," Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder said after the 49-35 loss to Georgia Southern. "It's on me. I'm the one who's got to make sure that doesn't happen. Any time something like this happens, particularly in this stage of a ballgame, the head coach has to get it handled, and I didn't."
He sure didn't. The Eagles and their deceptive triple option scored the game's final 28 points, all in the fourth quarter, to erase a 35-21 deficit and end ODU's season for the second consecutive year.
Georgia Southern rushed for 602 yards, 36 shy of the NCAA playoff record it set in 1999. Led by B-back Dominique Swope (186 yards and two touchdowns) and quarterback Jerick McKinnon (171 yards and four scores), the Eagles averaged a staggering 8.5 yards per carry and had 22 runs of at least 10 yards.
"Nobody stops this offense," Wilder said. "But I felt like we had a good handle on it (early in the second half)."
ODU's incapable defense prompted Wilder to gamble recklessly with just under four minutes remaining.
Georgia Southern (10-3) had tied the game at 35 minutes earlier, and on fourth-and-6 from his own 39, Wilder abandoned coaching convention and decided to go. Sure, he had similarly rolled the dice 32 previous times this season, cashing in on 24. And yes, the Monarchs have the most productive quarterback in FCS history, sophomore Taylor Heinicke.
But no matter the state of the defense, the play there is to punt, especially with Jonathan Plisco's NFL-caliber leg. Make the Eagles drive 80-plus yards, even if they might evaporate the clock in the process.
Wilder called a streak route, which Georgia Southern covered. Hurried by the rush, Heinicke dumped the ball toward tailback Tyree Lee in the flat. That the pass fell incomplete was irrelevant; Lee had no shot at gaining 6 yards regardless.
Three plays later, Swope scored from 12 yards out to put the Eagles ahead 42-35.
"I don't regret making that call," Wilder said.
ODU still had 2:36 and Heinicke, who finished the season with an FCS record 5,076 passing yards.
"He's one of the best in the FCS, probably one of the best in college football," Eagles safety J.J. Wilcox said.
And one of the best in postseason. In four career playoff games, Heinicke had thrown 158 times for 19 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Until the very next play, when Wilcox wrestled the ball from senior Nick Mayers, ODU's best receiver.
"I should have made the play," Mayers said.
Georgia Southern's subsequent touchdown was a forgone conclusion. ODU's defense was gassed and despondent.
Last year, the Monarchs' season ended with a 55-48 loss to the Eagles. But that was ODU's first playoff experience, and it came on the road against the six-time national champions.
This was different. This was the Monarchs' final playoff appearance as they begin transitioning to the Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA. For the next two years, ODU has no championship or postseason destination for which to play.
"A numb feeling," senior defensive tackle Chris Burnette said.
"I just feel like this team was way too good to leave this early," Mayers said.
"We didn't want it to end like this. That's the first thing you think of," senior linebacker Craig Wilkins said. "Four years ago? If you'd told us it would end like this, a lot of people wouldn't have believed (you). In the Elite Eight, being in the playoffs first of all. When we first got here, expectations weren't high."
In this tournament, expectations couldn't have been higher. Fourth-year startup notwithstanding, ODU (11-2) aimed to win it all.
"When we started (the program) it was just a vision, Wilder said, "and those kids made it a reality. … That was a very somber locker room, a lot of tears."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun