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2014 Old Dominion page

Old Dominion 45, Rice 42
Team takes step backwards as depleted defense can't solve ODU passing attack; Rice offense comes back from three-touchdown deficit only to see Owls fall on last-second field goal


Just like this ODU player's attempt to drag down Luke Turner by the skin of his teeth, the visiting Monarchs held on for a razor-thin, last-play, 45-42 win after the Owls rallied from a 21-point deficit to tie the score with a minute left in the game (PTH photo)

HOUSTON (Sept. 21) – Midway in the third quarter, with his Rice Owls trailing Old Dominion 35-21, defensive end Connor Johnson blew up his blocker and surged in to nail ODU quarterback Taylor Heinecke for a nine-yard loss.

It was a key play that set about a rare three-and-out for Owl defense, accelerating a 21-point comeback that tied the score with a minute left in the game.

But more remarkably, Connor Johnson ( with his twin brother, Collin, both defensive ends) is a walkon redshirt freshman, who in August was nowhere to be found among the top dozen-and-a-half or so on the depth chart of the Owl defensive line.

In front of the legacy volunteer from Las Vegas were heralded, experienced players like projected first round draft choice Christian Covington, all conference candidate Stuart Mouchantaf, two-letterman Derek Brown, early-game standouts such as Zach Patt and Cody Hennessee – now all mowed down with injuries.

On the field and getting defensive line play along with Connor were the likes of Brandon Hamilton, a reserve running back, and Trey Martin, a third-string center for the offense.

In all, depending upon how you count them, as many as seven Rice defensive starters were out with injury at that point. In the words of Bob Ewell describing his Mayella, the Owls were "beat up – mighty beat up."

Connor and his fellow squadmen manned up and gave it the old college try – well enough to pull out the win, it would surely seem. But they appeared to be ill-served by the recipe cooked up by Rice defensive strategists.

ODU QB Heinecke appeared all he was declared to be

Now they said this guy was good – and he was good – but ODU senior quarterback Taylor Heinecke basically kept the Owl defense discombobulated all afternoon as he completed 27 of 43 passes for 430 yards and five touchdowns en route to a 45-42 win, which was finally secured only when ODU’s frosh kicker, Ricky Segers, nailed a 25-yard field goal as time ran out.

Ah, but the frustration factor...as depleted as the Owl defense was, the outcome of the game appeared to turn on a a couple of coverage breakdowns – well, there were many more than a couple, but if only a couple of them had held up....

Take ODU’s short punt formation gambit, for example. On all but one punting situation, ODU offensive coaches dropped Heinecke back eight yards, where he surveyed the defensive lineup and then usually punted -- but not always.

The Rice defense reacted as if as if it had never seen such an animal – and certainly not during the previous weekdays when studying ODU game films.

With the score tied at 14, early second quarter, ODU faced fourth and eight at the Rice 45. With Rice defenders out of sorts,  taking the snap from short punt formation Heinecke had time for a cup of coffee before he surveyed the field and found his Anthony Vaughn for a 45-yard TD reception.

Early in the third, with Old Dominion up 28-14, the Monarchs faced fourth and three at the Rice 40. Once again Heinecke set up again in short punt. This time Rice defenders dropped back, so the crafty ODU signal caller sent his Gerald Johnson up the middle for four yards and a key first down, preserving a drive that, three plays later, put the Monarchs up by the depressing count of 35-14, barely three minutes deep in the third quarter.

As the game wore on, it became more and more apparent that when Heinecke faced defensive pressure of any kind, to any degree, from any direction, his passing game became much more harried and his throws were not nearly as accurate.

For most of the game, the Owl defense appeared not to take advantage of this tendency, however. The Rice defensive strategy appeared to be, we can’t put on much of a pass rush anyway with our injuries, so let’s rush three and drop back eight. Blitzing? Faggedaboudit.

Faced with that approach, Heinecke continued to pick apart the Rice pass defense. It wasn’t just his managing to step up underneath coverage and find his secondary receiver for first down yardage. It wasn’t just his ability to consistently complete the old NFL sideline route for seven, eight, nine yards on first down, game long.

It was the matter of deep coverage – or the lack thereof -- that had Owl fans muttering to themselves. That single aspect turned what otherwise might have been a rather pedestrian Rice victory into an excruciating loss.

ODU drove right in for scores first two possessions of game

After the Owls had driven 70 yards in only five plays to offset an opening ODU touchdown drive and tie the score at 7, ODU took advantage of a defensive offsides penalty on a play where the Owls had stuffed a third and nine attempt at the Rice 38. Three plays later, Heinecke hit a wide open Melvin Wright, who’d found a soft spot in coverage and sauntered in for 22 yards and an easy touchdown.

We’ve already mentioned the fourth-and-eight, 45-yard TD pass from Heinecke to Melvin Vaughn. That was painful enough to see. But with 1:49 left in the half, after the Owls had driven 46 yards in 12 plays, they wound up settling for a James Hairston field-goal attempt that hooked wide left from 46 yards out.

That gave ODU plenty of time to run the two minute drill to perfection. Well, almost to perfection – they got nabbed for holding and pass interference calls along the way, but still managed to attain second and 25 at the Rice 44 with 30 seconds left in the half. Once again, Heinecke stepped up, calmly surveyed the landscape, and found his Nick England wide open for 44 yards and the score. That made it 28-14, ODU, at the half, and the natives were restless.

After Rice went three and out on its opening possession of the third quarter, the Monarchs were sitting pretty by way of an Andrew Vaughn punt return for 28 yards to the Rice 47. From there, ODU blew in for the score, taking seven plays to garner the three touchdown lead, Heinecke on second-and-ten finding a wide-oopen Zach Paschal from 18 yards out for the score.

At that point, even die-hard Rice fans could not have been entirely blamed for ducking the hot mid-day Texas sun in heading for the exits. A few did.

But credit Driphus Jackson for cranking up the old flivver and making more than a game of it from that point out. Bear in mind that he had been benched with what appeared to be a disastrous shoulder dislocation on his non-throwing arm, suffered when he incurred a no-call late hit by ODU's Poncho Barnwell after he scrambled and found Zach Wright for 33 yards and the score to put the Owls on the board their first possession of the game.

From there, Driphus sat out the entire balance of the first half, and lord wondered but that he was out for the rest of the season, or at least the better part of it. During that time, Tyler Stehling came in and did a more-than-creditable job of leading the Owls, completing 7 of 12 passes for 67 yards, engineering a 12-play, 86-yard drive to tie the score at 14 midway in the second quarter.

But the Rice offense doesn’t just wasn’t the same without Driphus, and after one misfire on opening possession of the second half, he appeared, more or less miraculously, to shrug off what had looked to be a major injury, and set about to moving the Owls up and down the field for the rest of the game – as in, four possessions, four long touchdown drives.

"I was stunned when the doctors said he was clear to go,” Rice head coach David Bailiff said afterwards. "It was his left shoulder - and not his right one - so he could still throw a football, and they cleared him to come back. I thought it was one of the gutsiest performances that I've ever seen in a young man. That's really three great games in a row he's played."

Driphus was nonchalant, and much more concerned about the negative outcome of the game than he was his shoulder. "I wanted to get back in as soon as I could, but they wanted me to wait until the second half so that it could be evaluated (at halftime) and make sure it was something that I could play with." DJ said. "They braced me up for the second half, and we were able to get some stuff going."

Going indeed, as first, DJ got the Owls back to striking distance by marching them 75 yards in six plays to cut the score to 35-21. Key blows on that drive were struck by Temi Alaka, who hauled in a 31-yard completion from from Driphus, and Luke Turner, who went the final 18 on a pass and run out of the backfield for the score.

Given Connor Johnson and company’s back-bencher heroics on the next ODU possession, Jackson immediately cranked up the Rice offense again next possesson. The Owls consumed just over six minutes of time in deliberately, but inexorably, driving 65 yards in 13 plays, Darik Dillard getting the last three carries for 10, five and four yards for the score with just under a minute left in the third quarter.

As the fourth quarter began to unfold, however, Heinecke did have one more touchdown left in his bag of tricks, advancing the Monarchs on a 75-yard drive that put them up 42-28, making it look tough, mighty tough, for the Flock's victory prospects.

Time enough left for DJ to work his magic

Never mind that, however.  Once again, Driphus and Company started driving.  A key third-down completion to Dennis Parks went for 28 yards to the ODU 28, and set up Rice for its fifth touchdown of the day, Dillard once again getting the final two yards to make it 42-35 with exactly half of the fourth quarter left.

As the Old Dominion defense tended to get more and more wilted by the heat, the Owls' Jowan Davis appeared to get more and more energized. On the ensuing drive he carried the ball six times for 45 yards as the Flock moved ponderously down the field.

On the day, the Sealy native toted the ball 23 times for a game- and season-high 150 yards, while Darik Dillard ran for 70 yards and three scores. Stat-wise, Driphus Jackson, in a little over one half of play, tossed for 175 yards and two touchdowns.

"I was proud of Jowan and Darik," Coach Bailiff said, post-game. "With Jowan, there's a lot of times when you think he's down, and he just keeps those legs driving, and he comes out of it."

That last Rice drive was excruciating, but in the way of clock management, it appeared just what the doctor ordered, for it looked as if the Owls were in position to be able to score in the closing seconds of regulation, thus denying Heinecke adequate time to maneuver the Monarchs into position for winning in regulation.

With 1:11 left, the Owls had first and goal from at the seven yard line, and ODU coach Billy, er, Bobby, Wilder called time out and assembled his crew.

Was it to tell the ODU defenders to let the Owls score, so Heinecke would get the ball back with a minute or so in which to work his magic? There was speculation to such effect, but it is said hardly ever to occur in the annals of footballdom, and if Wilder did make the call, he didn’t admit it afterwards.

In any case, the young Dillard did scamper in virtually untouched on the next play, and after James Hairston’s extra point attempt knotted the score at 42, all of 1:05 remained on the scoreboard clock.

The senior LSU transfer performed his usual yeoman work with the touchback on the ensuing kickoff, so ODU started at its 25. Heinecke came in, appearing as cool as a cucumber, but the Rice defense was obviously pumped up. Here was where the Owls were going to make their stand -- and then win it in overtime.

First play, Heinecke was flushed out of the pocket, and headed for the visitors’ sideline in a desperation attempt to get out of bounds and stop the clock. Right before he got there, he was chased down by Grant Peterson, who grabbed a hunk of jersey right above the nameplate and pulled down the not-so-tall ODU signal-caller right onto his backside.

For all appearances, the tackle appeared to be of the horse collar variety, and that’s what the officials called. Instead of no gain, ODU was granted 15 yards out to its 40 yard line, and a first down.

On that same play, Rice defender James Mayden was hit late – mighty late – and out of bounds – mighty out of bounds – where he was knocked into the air clear across the ODU bench. The obvious call would have a least offset the iffy horse collar penalty and sent the Monarchs back to the 25 to try again. But it went unobserved, or at least uncalled, by the officials.

Brian Nordstrom broke up a rushed Heinecke pass attempt to his Zach Paschal on first down. But on but next play, the ODU senior passing wizard managed to escape containment, extend the play, step up, and catch Paschal, this time quite in the clear, 45 yards downfield at the Rice 14.

Malcolm Hill made the tackle at that point, but with 33 seconds remaining on the clock, the choir had just sung, and church was out.

Sure enough, after Gerard Johnson centered the ball (and in so doing gained 8 yards to the Rice eight), Seeger’s field-goal attempt easily split the uprights as the clock expired to give ODU the win.

--P.T.H.

HOUSTON (Sept. 17) – Well, so much for the "glorified practices." Now it’s time for the real season to begin.

The Rice Owls open league play Saturday, after two brutal road bouts finally getting to tangle in the friendly confines of their own familiar Rice Stadium, as they inaugurate the 2014 home season with an 11:00 AM kickoff against the Old Dominion University Monarchs. It’s the first Conference USA game ever for ODU, which has only been in the football business for six years now.

For the Owls, by comparison, it’s been 100 years in the college football arena, but this is the first time they have ever hosted the first-ever league game of an up-and-comer such as Old Dominion. 
Given the fact that the Owls will be taking the field to defend their Conference USA championship, in this, their first league tilt of the season, it would appear incumbent upon the Institute Boys to treat this game with every bit as much seriousness as they applied to the Aggies in College Station last week.

Only one difference, however. You know those long drives the Owls fashioned against the Texas Aggies last Saturday, but didn’t finish? This time, the Flock needs to punch across touchdowns. “We have just got to finish drives,” Rice head coach David Bailiff commented to press on Monday. Against the Aggies, the owls had six possessions of over eight plays each – one of them extending the 14 plays -- with a grand total of three points derived from all that offensive toil and sweat.

That’s got to change this week, and if all indications are accurate, Rice junior quarterback Driphus Jackson is just the man to make that happen.

Clearly, against the Fightin’ Farmers, Driphus crossed his personal Rubicon, performing adroitly before a noisy and hostile crowd of over 100,000, in so doing propelling the Rice offense to nearly 500 yards total offense,. “He made wise decisions along the way,” Coach Bailiff said this week. “His performance was outstanding, and we expect him to build upon it.”

Whether DJ will get some extra help from some of his more experienced shipmates is an open question, injury-wise. Junior Christian Covington, Rice’s all-everything defensive lineman from Vancouver, B.C., left the A&M game with a sprained knee on the first defensive play from scrimmage. One minute, Rice team physician Leland Winston could be seen on the sideline nervously palpating Christian’s knee, but in the next, the Canadian star was seen anxiously pacing up and down, as if he were ready to go in right then and there.

The word is that he “may play” in Saturday’s game. That’s certainly better than “won’t play,” and it will have to do for the time being.

A more likely possibility, however, is that Rice’s junior signal caller will be able to greet at least one of his two most prolific pass receivers on the field Saturday. Tight end Connor Cella, who performed well late in the season last year, has been cleared to play after suffering broken ribs during two-a- days.

Meanwhile, all-conference wide receiver Jordan Taylor worked out this week, but is still on the 'doubtful' list. He looked ready to go on the sideline against the Aggies, and indications are that he might be on the field with the Owls when they kick it off against the Monarchs Saturday.

Any of  those three additions alone could provide a morale boost for Rice, which played long. hard and tough against Texas A&M, despite the absence of such stalwart players, not to mention banged-up DLs Zach Patt and Ross Winship and DL Julius White.  Zach is said to be out for four weeks with a leg fracture, while the other two are day-to-day.

There appears to be an an injury issue with regard to ODU’s key personnel as well. Former Walter Payton award winner Taylor Heinecke, senior quarterback for Old Dominion, has not practiced all week’s after picking up a number of bumps and bruises in the first three games of the season. He was held out of practice Thursday, but swore to press that he’d be there in the starting lineup against the Owls on Saturday.

Heinecke threw for 4,022 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior last year after winning the Payton award as the top player in the FCS as a sophomore. He’s passed for over 12,000 yards in his career. Obviously, the guy can distribute the football around the field.

Behind him, the not-exactly-Nittany-like  Lions boast a 2-1 record thus far this season, with wins against Hampton (41-28) and Eastern Michigan (17-3), neither of them household names, and a 46-34 road loss against North Carolina State, expected to be a bottom dweller in the ACC this season.

Monarchs are a team that can put points on the board, though, especially if Heinecke is healthy. Thus far this season in three games, he’s completed 81 of 119 for 742 yards and five touchdowns, against four pickoffs. Still, against Eastern Michigan, not exactly a defensive juggernaut, the Monarchs were only able to score 17 points all night, and their ace QB was limited to 187 yards passing, with one interception.

Heinecke’s most prolific receivers are Antonio Vaughn, with 15 catches for 204 yards and two TDs, and Zach Paschal, sporting 19 receptions for 218 yards and two scores. He also has Gerard Johnson and Vincent Lowe coming out backfield – Heinecke typically throws the short pass to his running backs as an essential part of the ODU offense.

Incidentally, Johnson is the team’s leading rusher averaging just under 95 yards a game in the first three contests. True freshman running back Ray Lowery also paces the Monarch running attack, scoring his fourth touchdown into games with a 55 yard run against Eastern Michigan in the first quarter of that game.

On the defensive side, the Monarchs looked good against Eastern Michigan, but who wouldn’t? Limiting the Eagles only 215 total yards in the game, the Norfolk bunch were paced by a pair of linebackers, DJ Simon and TJ Ricks, with 11 and 10 tackles respectively. Simon is a Houston native and attended Klein Forest High School before heading to junior-college on his way to the Hampton Roads..

Safety Fellonte Misher leads ODU with 24 tackles in the first three games.

The three points allowed by the ODU defense against Eastern Michigan? That’s the closest to a shutout this outfit has ever come in school history.

The Owls are favored by somewhere between eight and 11 going into the contest, a classic trap game if there ever were one. Saturday’s weather is anybody’s guess, with a high of 83 predicted and ‘scattered thunderstorms.’

Anybody care to guess the attendance for Saturday’s home opener? Special incentives are on tap to encourage student attendance.  Season ticket sales are said to have increased this season. Eleven a.m. games are usually attendance debacles for Rice.  Might this year be different?

--P.T.H.