BLACKSBURG – A year ago, this is the game where it all went wrong for Virginia Tech, as Bobby Wilder’s Old Dominion team scored the biggest win in the program’s history upsetting the Hokies in Norfolk.
This year, could another stunner be in the offing?
Each week we’ll ask a local newspaper beat writer – the people who cover these teams the closest – to break down the Hokies’ next match up.
Ed Miller has been with the Virginia Pilot since 1990 and, during that time, he’s covered a bit of everything, from high schools to Virginia and the ACC. This is his third year focusing on Old Dominion.
Miller took time out to answer four downs worth of questions about ODU going into Saturday's game against Virginia Tech.
For more on the Monarchs and their match up with Virginia Tech, you can follow Miller on Twitter @edmillervp and read his coverage at pilotonline.com.
1) A year ago, Old Dominion was a massive underdog and shocked Virginia Tech in Norfolk. How different is this year’s team and is there a path for it to another stunning upset?
This team could hardly be more different. There are 23 transfers - 17 jucos, 4 grad transfers and 2 undergrad - and 46 new players overall. There were 6 new defensive and 8 offensive starters Saturday night.
Having said all, the path to an upset is similar: stopping Tech from loading up against the run by taking advantage of matchups on the outside. Last year, it was Blake LaRussa throwing the ball up to Travis Fulgham and Jonathan Duhart, a pair of 1,000-yard receivers who were both in camp with the Detroit Lions. This year it'll be Stone Smartt looking for Eric Kumah and Steven Williams, a former QB turned receiver. ODU knows it can't simply line up and run the ball.
Defensively, coordinator David Blackwell brings an aggressive new scheme that produced lots of turnovers and tackles for loss last year at East Carolina- but also allowed a lot of big plays. Obviously, creating turnovers is also key. It's probably too much to expect Tech to commit five again this week, but I don't think ODU can win without getting at least a couple.
2) With a game in the books, is there more clarity about the Monarchs’ quarterback situation? Did Stone Smartt take a step toward becoming “the guy,” or should we not read too much into the opener?
Smartt is the guy. Bobby Wilder said early last week that Smartt, Messiah deWeaver and Williams would all play. But Smartt started hot and played every snap. QB runs are a big part of the offense this year, and Smartt is big and mobile. He made one bad decision last week that he paid dearly for - trying to hit Chris Cunningham down the middle late. The ball was picked and Norfolk State turned a short field into the go-ahead TD. Smartt took most of the first-team reps in camp, so it was no surprise he got the start. He was more accurate than deWeaver, who is another big, mobile QB who began his career at Michigan State.
3) ODU has a new defensive coordinator and new scheme on that side of the ball. Is it a good fit for the personnel and how different did it look like in the opener?
Yeah, as I was saying, Blackwell brought a 4-2-5 scheme he used to good effect at ECU and at Jacksonville State before that. It puts a premium on getting up field and applying pressure from all angles. A key to the whole thing is a hybrid DE/OLB position called a "bandit" who is given freedom to line up all over to get after the QB. Last year at ECU, Nate Harvey, a former fourth-string RB, was voted AAC defensive Player of the year after racking up huge sacks and TFL numbers playing bandit. Players said they like the freedom that comes with the new scheme. They feel less programmed and more free to run to the ball. The biggest improvement is probably in the secondary, which is far more athletic than last, after the addition of Florida State transfer Calvin Brewton at safety and juco transfer Kaleb Ford-Dement at CB. The other corner, Lance Boykin, is a rising star. ODU gave up just 268 yards to Norfolk State, which is admittedly not an offensive power. But after finishing last in C-USA in total defense, it's a start.
4) A pair of former Tech players – Eric Kumah and Chris Cunningham – transferred to Old Dominion after last year. How have they fit in on and off the field and how big a role might they play Saturday?
You mean this week's new captains? Certainly that's a bit of gamesmanship from Wilder, but in all seriousness, they've fit in well. Kumah missed much of camp while recovering from a knee injury, but was a huge presence at practice coaching up the younger WRs. He played just 30 plays or so last week but Wilder said he'll get all the snaps he wants Saturday. Cunningham has been a mentor to the younger tight ends. Both players brought instant credibility after having success at a P5 program and have done and said all the right things so far.