NORFOLK, Va. — Old Dominion's football team truly won a big game Saturday night and did it with the kind of performance that should give ODU adherents a ton of hope for the rest of the season.
After bogging down in the second half last week at Virginia Tech, ODU's new up-tempo offense delivered as promised as the Monarchs rallied to upend Louisiana, 38-31 in their home opener.
The victory, which came in the first Sun Belt Conference game of the season, ends a seven-game Monarch losing streak and comes against a Louisiana program that is steeped in tradition and was a six-point favorite.
Louisiana, which has been to 10 bowl games since 2011, was picked to finish third in the West Division and ODU last in the East. Yet the Monarchs are 1-0 in the Sun Belt, and for now, atop the East Division.
ODU got a superb performance from quarterback Grant Wilson, the junior transfer from Fordham who tossed four touchdown passes, the most since Blake LaRussa threw four in the Monarchs' 2018 upset victory over Virginia Tech. Wilson completed 13-of-19 passes for 247 yards and ran for a touchdown.
ODU's offense, which offensive coordinator Kevin Decker brought with him from Fordham, was explosive and unpredictable. During one late play in the second quarter, the Monarchs lined up with three men spread on each sideline, and Obie Sanni rushed for six yards against the confused defenders.
ODU running back Keshawn Wicks followed up his career-high rushing performance last week at Virginia Tech with another career best – he rushed 17 times for 103 yards.
Linebacker Jason Henderson, ODU's first FBS All-American, led the Monarchs with 17 tackles and although he's early in his junior year, moved to fourth among Monarch all-time tacklers.
ODU did not win this game until the final seconds. After a pass interference penalty gave Louisiana a first and goal at the 6, the Monarch defense stood tall. Louisiana quarterback Ben Wooldridge was run out of bounds for no gain on first down, and then tossed two passes that fell incomplete.
On fourth down, he rolled out to his left, and his pass intended for Terrance Carter fell short. A vocal crowd of 18,154 that waited through an hour-long delay because of thunderstorms, and was drenched with rain showers through much of the first half, celebrated loudly at game's end.
Coach Ricky Rahne said the locker room was buoyant after ODU's first victory since 49-21 victory at Coastal Carolina on Oct. 15 of 2022.
He said the team is comprised of "18 to 22 year old kids, and after a while of us working them, grinding them the way we do, they need some rewards.
"And tonight was a reward for not only the work that we put in but also realizing that if everyone does their job on a consistent basis, we can be a good football team.
"We just played a really good football team. They've got some NFL players on their roster. That's a very good team."
Rahne praised Decker for his play-calling and Wilson for his calmness under duress.
"I loved how aggressive coach Decker was," he said. "And I loved how Grant stayed within the system.
"He didn't try to force things downfield. He didn't throw the deep ball when he should have gone short. He really played within the system. And I thought our wide outs stepped up.
"It's nice to be able to throw the ball to whoever's open."
ODU's offense especially shone brightly in the second half.
The game was tied at the half, 17-17, after the Monarchs surrendered a late second-quarter touchdown. ODU's offense struck quickly as Wilson threw 39 yards for a touchdown to Reymello Murphy, the sophomore junior college transfer from Fremont, California. That capped a 65-yard drive that took just two minutes and 22 seconds.
It was the first career TD reception for Murphy, who celebrated by catching a 61-yard TD pass two drives later that gave ODU a 31-17 lead with 4:33 left in the third quarter.
The teams then began a back and forth that continued the rest of the game.
Louisiana trimmed the margin to seven after rolling the dice and going for it on fourth down and 2 at the ODU 14. Wooldridge tossed a 10-yard pass to Peter LeBlanc, and two plays later, Williams ran a yard for a touchdown.
ODU built the lead back to 14 on a 36-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Kelby Williams, a sophomore junior college wide receiver from Houston, Texas, who also caught his first career TD pass.
But once again, Louisiana gambled, going for it on fourth and 6 at the ODU 37, and it paid off as Wooldridge threw a 37-yard TD passed to Jacob Kidobi with 9:13 left.
Then, in the final seconds, when ODU had to have a stop, the defense stood tall.
"I thought (defensive coordinator) Blake Seiler called a great game," Rahne said.
"That was clutch," he said of his team's defensive play on Louisiana's last four plays.
"The offense put us in great field position all night and put a lot of points on the board," added Henderson. "So, when it comes to four downs like that, you know you've got to bow up, to act like you've been there before. Everyone has to do their job and we all did."
The game opened with both offenses on fire.
Louisiana took the ball 75 yards for a touchdown on the game's first possession, a drive capped by a circus catch from freshman wide receiver Harvey Broussard, who hauled it in one-handed at the left corner of the end zone.
Following a 41-yard kickoff return by LaMareon James, it then took the Monarchs just two plays and 26 seconds for the Monarchs to even the score.
On first down, Wilson tossed a 25-yard pass to Isiah Paige, then after the Monarchs rushed back to the line of scrimmage, he threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ahmarian Granger, the first career TD for the sophomore from Norfolk's Maury High School, who gloved the ball one-handed.
Louisiana responded with a 54-yard drive and a 28-yard field goal from Kenny Almendares, but the key for ODU is that on third down, after completing nine passes in a row, Wooldridge could not find an open receiver and the pass went out of bounds.
Three minutes into the second quarter, ODU's Ethan Sanchez tied things up with a 39-yard field goal.
Henderson made a key tackle on Louisiana's next drive, hitting Louisiana's Williams for a two-yard loss on third down and forcing the Ragin' Cajuns to punt.
ODU then took its first lead of the year on a well-executed 65-yard drive in which the Monarchs established their running game. Wicks carried the first six plays for 52 yards.
After Obie Sanni, the 5-9 redshirt sophomore from Aurora, Colorado, rushed six yards to the three, Wilson then faked a handoff and rushed untouched around the right end for a touchdown and a 17-10 Monarch lead.
Louisiana tied the score just before halftime, as Wooldridge dropped a perfectly-thrown ball to wide receiver Charles Roberts, who hauled it in for what appeared to a be a 44-yard TD pass. After the replay, the ball was moved back to the one, but Wooldridge ran around the right end for a TD that tied the score with 11 seconds left and set up what proved to be an epic second half for the Monarchs.
When asked about the team's post-game celebration, Henderson demurred.
"My favorite part was the locker room at halftime," he said. "It was a tie game and nobody was bowing their heads. Everyone was happy and excited. Everyone knew we needed the energy."
And, Rahne said, a little joy,
"I told our guys on Friday night that part of doing your job as a college football player is to have fun and enjoy what you're doing," he said.
"Most peoples' jobs aren't a lot of fun. And you never know if you're ever going to have a job (after college) that you love. And so when I say do your job, part of that is having fun.
"This is the greatest game on Earth. This is America's game, right? And this is the youth of America who love this sport.
"I want to make sure they continue to understand that and continue to have fun."
ODU hosts Wake Forest next Saturday at noon in a game to be televised nationally on an ESPN network.