NORFOLK ——William and Mary's first football season was in 1893. Grover Cleveland had just been elected president. Old Dominion's first season was in 2009. You can remember a year ago, right?
The Tribe had played 1,090 football games. The Monarchs had played 13.
By all logic, Saturday night's debut of the W&M- ODU football series should have been a formality. That's what everyone — even Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder, if you read between the lines — was saying.
Yet the Monarchs didn't accept that … and they nearly pulled it off. William and Mary, ranked 12th in the nation, didn't take its first lead until 4:45 was left in the game and had to work for its 21-17 win.
No doubt, a rivalry was born.
The atmosphere certainly was there. The sellout crowd at Foreman Field was dominated by white-shirted ODU fans, save for a group of green and gold in one corner. The weather was perfect and the pre-game tunes included just about everything from Michael Jackson to Led Zeppelin.
If the Monarchs were intimidated, they sure hid it well. Perhaps too much — they were whistled for five personal foul penalties, including a facemask that set up the winning touchdown. There was plenty of shoving and bickering. Heck, ODU punter Jonathan Plisco even got into it. (Then again, he does go 6-foot, 220 pounds).
Each time the Monarchs got a tough break, be it a penalty or a turnover, they didn't blink. Not when they fumbled inside their 10-yard line with a 7-0 lead — ODU's defense forced a field goal attempt, which was missed. And not when the Tribe silenced the crowd by scoring on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter to tie it.
Even after W&M went ahead 21-17, the Monarchs weren't done. They moved to the Tribe 38-yard line where they faced a fourth-and-4. Thomas DeMarco, who hit only 21 of 40 passes, threw short of his receiver with 3:15 remaining.
As you might remember, the first game between these teams was supposed to have been played last year. But Wilder knew his fledgling program would be no match for the Tribe, so he and W&M coach Jimmye Laycock agreed to bump it back a year.
ODU broke out black jerseys for the occasion, and they had better luck with them than Virginia Tech did against Boise State. On their second possession, the Monarchs took a 7-0 lead on DeMarco's 4-yard pass to Kai Blanco with 5:40 left in the first quarter.
The crowd, amped to begin with, could now be heard in Chesapeake. It was crazy at halftime, as ODU held a 14-7 lead.
But Mike Callahan began the second half with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Chase Hill to tie it. ODU regained the lead on Jarod Brown's field goal with 9:38 remaining, but W&M scored the winning touchdown on Callahan's 4-yard pass to Gareth Hissong nearly five minutes later.
With every interview he granted this week, and there were more than usual, Wilder was careful. He wanted his players to know they could win against this mighty opponent.
But here's what he also said of William and Mary …
"This is a national championship caliber team. … We're going to have to play close to perfect to even have a chance to be in this game. … I don't see any weaknesses in this team … If we can compete with them, that could be as much success as winning the game for our program."
The thing is, Wilder turned out to be right on both counts. There was no logical reason for the Monarchs to beat William and Mary Saturday night. Yet his players knew they could.
They almost did.
Dave Johnson can be reached at 247-4649 or by e-mail at email@example.com.