2017 Season: ODU Preview

In many ways this game is about FAU more than it is about Old Dominion. This is dangerous in the fact that Old Dominion has enough to threaten this North Texas team and misplaced preparation is how teams become vulnerable.

That said, the renewed focus that can only come from an epic, record-setting loss is good and should power this North Texas team this Saturday.

Old Dominion is coached by Bobby Wilder, a fun, smart coach who has built this program and guided it to a 10-win season a year ago. This current team is beset by injuries and youth –relying on 17-year old starting QB Steven Williams– but is ever dangerously playing for pride. The Monarchs have not won in conference play and recently threw away a chance at beating a down WKU at home last week.

For North Texas, this is the perfect palate-cleanser. While a worse team might seem easier, this Old Dominion squad presents the perfect combination of talent and coaching to challenge and yet rebuild the confidence of the Mean Green.

The Monarchs welcomed back RB Ray Lawry (5′ 10″ 204 SR), who amassed 3000+ yards in three years before being injured to begin this one. Old Dominion will look to him to take some of the burden of their young QB. Lawry has good patience, good vision, and enough speed to break long runs. He is tough to bring down and the poor positioning by NT last week will give up big yards if Reffett’s crew is not careful.

Statistically ODU is simply bad. The advanced numbers show a team that struggles to move the chains, is unexplosive, and inefficient at getting points inside the 40. They also turn the ball over. This is all unsurprising considering the QB and injury situation.

Similarly, they do not do much defensively. If the offense could help them any, the defense would not look so bad. The pass rush is dangerous and the returning secondary has talent. Last week they had three sacks and 8 tackles for loss against a WKU team that has slowly been returning to 2016 form (well, shades of that form). They picked off Mike White but also allowed 5 TDs and 304 yards passing.

The North Texas offense we have seen for about 2/3rds-to-a-half of every game should score and move the ball on this defense. After all, if it could put up 13-quick points against UTSA’s defense with NFL talent coming off the edge, ODU should not put up much stronger of a challenge.

Defensively, NT is looking to shed the ‘bad defense’ label. Count this blog among those thinking this defense has shown improvement throughout the season and even over last year. While the turnover-creation has not been at the same level, the run defense has been.

The defense now faces one of the most turnover-prone units in the league and should improve the stats in their favor.

Defending ODU

QB Steven Williams (6’4″ 200lbs FR) is young and will be really good by the time he is done in VA, but for now he has 9 INTs, and three fumbles. He should be the worst QB — it feels wrong to write ‘worst’ but it is the right word — that NT has faced since Lamar in Week one. If last season’s game against Southern Miss’s Keon Howard — then also a turnover-prone freshman — then NT should capitalize on his youth and inexperience.

Old Dominion is further along in the Williams era than was USM then, and they will rely on Ray Lawry to be the offensive producer if not the engine. Pre-FAU, run defense was a strength of this NT team. The Monarchs have been looking for receiving playmakers all season and NT has been better.

The obvious, and much-asked question of the week has been about ‘blueprint’. This as in ‘did FAU lay out the blue print to beat NT’. The answer here, is ‘no’. FAU ran their offense and incorporated their TE more than they had previously, but there was nothing particularly exploitative of the NT defense that an Old Dominion can replicate.

The Monarchs do not play at the same tempo, nor do they have offensive gurus Lane Kiffin and Kid Briles on the sideline — no offense to the ODU staff.

That said, North Texas can and will allow some big plays especially because of the philosophy of man-coverage and attacking defense. Steven Williams is mobile and at least Dalton Sturm was able to manufacture first downs (and a TD) with his feet. He has the ability to skip out of a would-be sack and fire the the ball out of the cannon arm of his for a TD.

RB Jeremy Cox (5’11” 217 JR) is used in the pass game frequently, including being split out wide. He has 16 catches on 19 targets for 139 yards this year, as the fourth leading pass catcher on the team. Travis Fulgham (6’3″ 208 lbs JR) is the leading wideout on the team with 16 catches on 38 targets for 247 and 1 score. He is improving and has good size but is inconsistent.

The simple game plan here is stopping the run game — and Lawry especially — and forcing Steven Williams to make the right reads and the right tosses. North Texas should be ready to do just that for most of the game.

Corners Kemon Hall and Eric Jenkins may get some INTs this game. Jenkins has been close in his return to the starting lineup. One part of the game to watch will be MLB Brandon Garner slowing the run game. Lawry is patient and explodes through the gaps. If The front three/four cannot get the kind of penetration they were getting in earlier games (basically outside of FAU) then this could be a long day.

Attacking ODU

The second-leading offense in the league had an awful game in Boca Raton. Mason Fine did not look like the crisp, tough passer that earned the previous week’s CUSA Offensive Player of the Week award. If there is a simple, reductive summation of the FAU offensive performance it was that it seemed NT was waiting around for the next big play to present itself.

Having had much success tossing bombs to Jalen Guyton, NT forgot how to manufacture first downs by running the offense. If not that, it at least forgot how to feed Jeff Wilson early and often. This blog thought Wilson would have a good game against an FAU squad that had allowed big rushes but instead he was limited as the lead grew to ridiculous levels.

ODU has talent on defense but has allowed big numbers — most notably to FAU also. LB Marvin Branch (6’2′ 222 JR) leads the team with 10 run stuffs (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage), followed by fellow LB Jordan Young (6’3″ 222 FR). DE Tim Ward (6’6″ 243 JR) has great size and also has contributed 7 run stuffs himself. On the other side DE Oshane Ximines (6’3″ 247 JR) has six sacks (and 6 run stuffs). DE Bunmi Rotimi (6’4″ 275 SR) has four sacks on the year and is battling Ximines for the all-time ODU record. Ximines leads at 18.5, while Rotimi has 17.5

ODU plays a 4-2-5 multiple defense. The tackles have good size especially the Noses, as they go three deep at 300+ lbs.

NT has struggled getting good push on short yardage, but has created enough seams for Jeff Wilson to run through and enough time for Mason Fine to throw. The last two games this has been less true. While the ‘blueprint’ FAU found defensively early was simply pressuring Fine and focusing on Wilson, this has been the game plan for nearly every team.

The throws and the running lanes were available for Fine and Wilson even in the poorest stretches of the last two games. Littrell suggested a refocus and a deeper look into getting Wilson the ball is the answer. We will see.

Those same things should be available against ODU also.

Guyton got free against every team but FAU, and that should continue, but look for North Texas to look to involve others early. If there was an easy complaint about the lethargy in the first couple of series, it could be that NT was looking for a big play to bail them out — ones that have recently come from Guyton.

Rico Bussey has not had the kind of impact expected of him after his breakout Bowl Game performance, although he did score the game-winner against UTSA. He did not impress in Boca and look for more from him.

Mike Lawrence had a career game (to this point) and performed the stereotypical A position — lots of catches on the underneath routes.

Mason Fine is expected to have yet another good game but look for him getting up slowly after big hits. Littrell previously noted his slowing down throughout his freshman campaign, and despite his workouts, taking the kinds of hits he takes exact a toll.

RT Riley Mayfield and LT Jordan Murray will have their hands full — yet again — with talented pass rushers. LG Elex Woodworth, C Sosala Mose, and RG TJ Henson have been solid-to-good for the most part. Some of the recent failures in short yardage have been outside of their control. ODU’s line is big and strong and will get stops, but this group should hold their own despite the size differences.

Elsewhere

S&P: 121
NT: 67 (LW 65)
COW: 85%

SRS: 120
NT: 87 (LW 64)

FPI: 117
NT: 97 (LW 91)
COW: 80.6%

Sagarin: 168
NT: 109 (LW 102)
NT 14.88 favorites

FEI: 110
NT: 99 (LW 72)
COW: 70.2%

Massey -- unavailable at this time

COW = Chance of Winning

Overall

People are superstitious. It is a survival mechanism ingrained deeply into every one of us that helped us avoid disaster before we had scientific studies to help us out. It is easy to get caught up in fear of changing innocuous routines in the hope of changing the outcome of a game after the fact. There is no shame in a pool party or even posting pictures of one. There are coaches that go out of their way to integrate more fun into programs in the hopes of winning. There was more to the loss against FAU than pool parties or fun. Sometimes that cannot be corrected with self-flagellation.

ODU has the makings of a good team but is a wounded team. If there is a takeaway from the FAU game that is valuable and useful, it is the merciless taking advantage of a weakness. The Monarchs have a weakness and the North Texas football team should take full advantage of it for 60 minutes. Anything less should be cause for the kind of gnashing of teeth seen this week on the various fan boards.

MGN Prediction: North Texas 51 ODU 24