Bobby Wilder flexed like a boxer. His best left hook is years behind him, but Old Dominion’s football coach could be excused some posing Saturday night after his Monarchs’ 38-28 victory at James Madison.
“We’re the champs,” Wilder said. “We win.”
Indeed, the regular-season finale vaulted ODU atop the Colonial Athletic Association standings with a 7-1 league mark. CAA officials ruled the Monarchs ineligible to win the title after they announced intentions to move to Conference USA, but the standings do not lie.
“All due respect to the league,” Wilder said. “I understand they had to do what they had to do. But from our standpoint, we were playing to win the league championship. That was critical to us.”
So intent was Wilder on CAA implications that as the Monarchs lounged in their hotel Saturday afternoon, he had director of operations Chris Crouch text players, encouraging them to watch the Towson-New Hampshire game.
New Hampshire’s loss allowed ODU (10-1 overall) to “win” the CAA outright.
The Monarchs will learn their playoff fate Sunday afternoon and appear destined to be seeded among the top four in the 20-team field.
Now ranking Championship Subdivision teams is a fool’s errand. Intersectional matchups, television coverage, even extended highlights, are in short supply.
But this is certain: Of the 120 other teams playing FCS football this season, none has a better record than the Monarchs.
And it wasn’t just quarterback Justin Thorpe and running back Dae’Quan Scott, who combined for JMU’s four touchdowns. Senior guard Earl Watford was as good as Wilder advertised, throwing the key block on Thorpe’s 45-yard, first-quarter scramble. Defenders such as end Sage Harold, linebackers Jamie Veney and Stephon Robertson, and cornerback Leavander Jones have the speed necessary to slow ODU’s spread offense.
JMU’s motivation Saturday was two-fold. First, the Dukes (7-4, 5-3 CAA) needed a victory to harbor any playoff hopes. Second, they wanted nothing more than to show the upwardly mobile Monarchs that their impending upgrade to the Bowl Subdivision carries no weight in these parts.
Sure enough, the Dukes struck first and led 21-10 at halftime. But for the second consecutive game, coordinator Bill Dee’s defense rebounded from an early gouging.
Last week, William and Mary scored 28 first-half points at ODU, three in the second.
Saturday, JMU scored 21 points before intermission, seven after. And the Dukes’ only second-half score came after Jakarie Jackson’s interception gave them possession at the Monarchs’ 22.
Moreover, JMU gained 217 yards on 34 first-half plays, 94 on 33 in the second.
“We played with emotion,” linebacker Craig Wilkins said of the reversal. “Coach Dee talks about it all the time. I joked around today and called him Ray Lewis because he always shows us Ray Lewis videos.”
With the defense in lock-down mode and creating short fields, Taylor Heinicke and the offense were destined to exploit JMU.
Heinicke threw for 357 yards and four touchdowns, 243 yards and all the touchdowns coming in the second half. Following the third-quarter interception, Heinicke completed his next 12 passes for 158 yards and three scores.
The Monarchs scored two touchdowns in four minutes to seize their first lead at 31-28 late in the third quarter.
First, Heinicke hit Antonio Vaughan for 59 yards on a streak route, setting up the throw with a deft pump fake. Then, after yet another Dukes three-and-out, Heinicke capped a 45-yard drive with a 17-yard strike to Larry Pinkard.
“I think he’s clearly the best player in the country,” Wilder said. “I’ve been coaching quarterbacks my whole life. I’ve never seen a better single performance out of a player.”
JMU coach Mickey Matthews’ mid-week endorsement of Heinicke was as glowing.
“We’ve been calling him ‘Taylor Football’ around here,” Matthews said, a reference to Texas A&M freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, who has been dubbed “Johnny Football.” “He’s a great player. He’s a rare guy.
“He’s the best quarterback in the league. He’s also probably the best running back in the league. He can play running back for anyone in the league. He’s an excellent thrower, but he makes everyone miss in the open field, he keeps plays alive. If they didn’t have him slide, he’d probably lead the league in rushing. He’s an old single-wing tailback is what he is.
“He’s a great player, a great athlete. I look at what Auburn’s doing down there at quarterback and I wonder how in the world could they let him get out of the state of Georgia. I don’t know what everyone was doing down there. He could certainly play in the SEC or any league he wanted to play in.”
A quick personal note: As some of you perhaps know, I attended JMU during the Dark Ages -- the institution was even deranged enough to grant me a degree. So for someone who played intramural softball and soccer (badly) in Bridgeforth Stadium, the west side expansion that includes suites, posh media digs and parking deck is mind-bending.
Some associated with the school want the Dukes to mirror the Monarchs and jump to the FBS. I’m skeptical – low-rent bowls pale to the FCS playoffs – but regardless, JMU has infrastructure to envy.
Meanwhile, ODU has a team to envy.
“What an historical win for Old Dominion University,” Wilder said.
The playoffs could bring more.
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
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