The freshman quarterback's arms, legs and head carried the offense, and a second-half defensive surge delivered a 23-20 win against ninth-ranked James Madison on Saturday at soggy Foreman Field in the Oyster Bowl.
"Clearly, one of the most exciting football games I've ever been involved with, playing or coaching," Wilder said. "Just the nature of the game, the buildup to it. I thought I had seen some buildup to football games in my time coaching here, but nothing compares to the buildup this week of this football game."
The Monarchs weathered a shaky first half in which they allowed JMU to score on all four of its possessions. They then blanked the injury-riddled Dukes' offense in the second half, clinching the win when Craig Wilkins tipped Cameron Starke's 47-yard field goal attempt at the gun.
Heinicke, making his fourth start in relief of injured Thomas DeMarco, completed 22 of 35 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He also was ODU's leading rusher, with 92 gross yards that were bumped back to 50 by JMU sack yardage.
"I think their quarterback's a great player," Dukes coach Mickey Matthews said. "I thought he made a lot of plays with his feet. That was probably the difference in the game. We just couldn't tackle the guy. We tackled the rest of their guys pretty good."
"He was probably the best running back on the field today, was their quarterback. He made more people miss than anyone else."
Indeed, Heinicke dodged and feinted and slipped out of defenders' grasp and bought time to throw – most notably on a second-quarter TD pass to Larry Pinkard that officially counted as 23 yards. But he circled back and finally let it fly from about 40 yards on what was basically a Hail Mary to avoid a sack, and Pinkard came down with it between two JMU defenders.
Heinicke also had the day's longest run, a 33-yard effort in the fourth quarter that eventually led to Jarod Brown's 25-yard field goal for a 23-20 lead.
"The worst thing we could do today was cover everybody," Matthews said, only partly in jest. "I got to where I almost wanted there to be open receivers so he'd throw it. Because every time he pulled it down, he took off with it and we couldn't tackle him."
Heinicke said his runs are rarely planned.
"My first thought is to get it out of my hands," he said, "because I honestly don't like running the ball. I just want to get it out of my hands and let the playmakers do whatever they do. … If everyone's covered, I just tuck it and, honestly, when I'm running I just run where there's nobody, and if there's nowhere to go, I just go down so I don't get hit."
Heinicke also wisely threw the ball away when everyone was covered and the Monarchs were in field goal range. Though they managed just three field goals in the second half, they were far more productive than JMU.
The Dukes lost three starting offensive linemen to injuries, as well as leading rusher Dae'Quan Scott. That accounted for an offense that piled up 266 yards and 20 points in the first half, and 76 yards and zero points thereafter.
"We were so taken back," Matthews said, "we couldn't get the simplest play run in the second half. … It was very devastating to us."
The Monarchs noted JMU's personnel losses and took advantage, bringing more pressure and filling gaps. And simply playing smarter.
"The kids were trying to do too much early in the game because of how excited they were," Wilder said. "We got it settled down at halftime, talked to our defense about just playing their responsibility within the defense, and they did that in the second half."
Beating James Madison helped erase some of the disappointment from the Monarchs' previous home game, a 39-35 loss to Towson in which the Tigers scored 15 points in the final 3 1/2 minutes. It was also another step for a program learning to win and to finish games.
"I felt like when we beat Massachusetts and won our first league game," Wilder said, "that was a quality win for us. But I would call this win over James Madison a signature win for Old Dominion football."