If Old Dominion is going to be the Georgia Southern of the 21st century then it is going to have to beat the original to get there.
The No. 10 Monarchs (10-2) are trying to accomplish the improbable task of winning a Football Championship Subdivision national championship in only their third year of football, and in their first playoff appearance.
Coach Bobby Wilder’s team took the first step toward reaching that goal last week with an impressive 35-18 win over Norfolk State.
Old Dominion plays its second playoff game ever at 1 p.m. today against No. 3 GSU (9-2) at Paulson Stadium.
With six championships GSU has won more FCS (formerly Division I-AA) titles than any other school.
The Eagles became, and remain, the quickest to win a national championship as they claimed their first in 1985 in the school’s fourth year of football.
GSU coach Jeff Monken has no doubt drilled that bit of history into the heads of his players this week impressing upon them that a young upstart cannot be taken lightly.
Despite their short existence the Monarchs are a good team, Monken said, noting they finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association, which is considered to be among the upper echelon in the FCS.
“Their coaching staff has done a great job,” Monken said. “They’ve beaten teams with historic programs in only their third year.
“They have two quarterbacks who are really good. They do a great job of spreading the ball around, and they have three receivers with over 40 catches. They are tough to defend, have speed in the secondary and are very athletic.”
Old Dominion, 27-7 in its three years of play, relies heavily on recruits from the Hampton Roads area, which plays some of the best high school football in Virginia, but the player who makes them go is from Georgia.
Quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a true freshman who played at Collins Hill, and this week was The Sports Network’s national freshman of the week after throwing a school-record five touchdown passes in the win over Norfolk State.
Heinicke completed 21 of 30 passes for 269 yards against the Spartans. For the season, he is completing 70 percent of his passes, having connected on 186 of 263 attempts for 2039 yards and 20 touchdowns. He has been intercepted only once.
Thomas DeMarco was the Monarchs’ starter and was on the Walter Payton Award watch list when he went down with an injury in the fifth game of the season. DeMarco is now healthy, but Heinicke’s hot hand has kept him in the lineup.
Nick Mayers is ODU’s leading receiver with 57 receptions for 658 yards and seven touchdowns. Reid Evans has caught 46 balls and Antonio Vaughan 44. Larry Pinkard and Prentice Gill have 34 catches each with eight of Pinkard’s going for scores.
While ODU is completing 24 of 36 passes per game for 264 yards, its running game has also been effective. Angus Harper has gained 602 yards, and Colby Goodwyn has 534.
CAA Defensive Player of the Year Ronnie Cameron heads a defensive unit which is allowing only 115 yards per game on the ground. The Monarchs lead FCS in blocked kicks with 10, having blocked five field goals and five punts.
However, the Eagles have the great equalizer in their triple-option offense, and Wilder admits it will present a problem for his team.
Wilder has a history with GSU and the triple-option.
An assistant at Maine for 17 years before taking the ODU job in February 2007, he was a quarterback on the Maine team which lost to the Eagles, 31-28, in the playoffs in 1987 at Paulson.
Wilder was the Black Bears’ offensive coordinator when they lost, 31-7, at Paulson in the 2002 playoffs.
While Old Dominion did not play an option team this season it has faced two option teams with mixed results.
Two years ago in a one- touchdown win over a 2-8 VMI team, the Monarchs gave up 422 yards. The Keydets’ offensive coordinator was current GSU offensive coordinator Brent Davis.
Last year, ODU lost by 13 points to Cal Poly, which had 326 yards.
“It’s difficult to replicate what we’re going to see from them offensively,” Wilder said. “But it’s going to be equally difficult for them to prepare for what we do.”
This will be the Monarchs’ second game this season against a Georgia team. They defeated Georgia State, 40-17, at the Georgia Dome.