NORFOLK — Brevity is not Bobby Wilder's forte. But were Old Dominion's football coach so inclined, his pregame Knute Rockne on Saturday could (should?) have been four words: They beat Georgia Southern.
Or, if Wilder absolutely, positively could not resist, he could have added four words: They run the option.
"They" are The Citadel Bulldogs, and predictably, their talented, deceptive offense befuddled the Monarchs.
As predictably, quarterback Taylor Heinicke and his mates on offense were unfazed. Heinicke's 70-yard touchdown pass and subsequent 2-point conversion, both to Larry Pinkard, with 3:36 remaining gave ODU a 59-58 victory.
Entertaining and whiplash-inducing as the evening was, let's be clear: This was not an encouraging performance for a program transitioning to the Football Bowl Subdivision from the Championship Subdivision.
As usual, the Monarchs' most glaring deficiencies were on defense. Rich Nagy is ODU's third defensive coordinator in three seasons, but despite Wilder's staff tinkering, the Monarchs often are helpless against the option.
The Citadel (1-3) never punted, rushed for 453 yards and gained 566 total yards. Indeed, ODU's most effective defense was the onside kick.
On consecutive third-quarter kickoffs, within two minutes no less, the Monarchs caught the Bulldogs napping — Anthony Wilson and Scott Wiggins alertly recovered them. And here I thought that after 30-plus years covering college football, I'd seen everything.
ODU (2-2) converted the extra possessions into 10 points to conclude a 16-point binge over 4:31. Jarod Brown's career-long 52-yard field goal gave the Monarchs a 51-38 cushion entering the final quarter.
Of course, that wasn't enough.
The Citadel countered with two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Ben Dupree, his fourth and fifth of the game, to retake the lead at 52-51. Gerard Johnson's muff of a pooch kickoff set up the Bulldogs' go-ahead score.
After the Heinicke-Pinkard connection gave his team a seven-point edge, Wilder foolishly called a third onside kick. The Citadel recovered and drove 38 yards for a touchdown, Dupree passing 23 yards to Jake Stenson with 1:39 left.
Bulldogs coach Kevin Higgins disdained the PAT and possible 59-all tie and went for a 2-point conversion. Dupree appeared to have an angle toward the left pylon, but cornerback Reggie Owens stopped him just shy.
"Our main focus is just staying on our man, staying in our coverage," Owens said. "It just came down to me shedding a block and making the tackle. I was reading pass like normal, and when I saw him come outside, I had to keep containment. I had to make the play."
Was he convinced he stopped Dupree short?
"I wasn’t sure," Owens said with a smile. "I just knew that I hit him."
Said Dupree: "The play got strung out. It was a double-option (and) I could have pitched it, but I thought I had leverage on a guy, and I think I beat him to the corner, but another guy stepped up, and I tried to lower my shoulder. I probably could have went high. … I knew I didn’t get in."Higgins said the decision to go for two "was easy," given the way ODU was moving the ball.
"We knew what we were getting into in terms of their offense," Higgins added. "We just needed to get one turnover (on defense)."
The Bulldogs didn't as Heinicke completed 35-of-42 passes for 363 yards and three scores. He also rushed for 52 yards, 25 on a third-quarter touchdown.
The Citadel's triple-option gouged ODU in every way imaginable: Running back Darien Robinson rumbled for 227 yards between the tackles, scoring from 62 yards out on the game's third snap; quarterback Dupree rushed for 149 yards, while completing five passes for 113 yards.
While The Citadel did not join ODU and Georgia Southern in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs last season, it did go 7-4, Georgia Southern among its conquests. Moreover, of the seven FCS opponents on the Monarchs' 2013 schedule, the Bulldogs loomed as the most challenging.
The mere mention of Georgia Southern causes Wilder, the Monarchs and their fans to break out in hives. The Eagles dismissed ODU from the playoffs in 2011 and '12, last season in Norfolk, where their triple-option offense produced 49 points, 28 in the fourth quarter, and a staggering 602 yards rushing.
So fluke or not — 2012 was The Citadel's first winning season since '07 — that result should have commanded ODU's attention, especially a defense that allowed 99 points combined in opening losses at East Carolina and Maryland.
If not that result, then The Citadel's triple-option attack. The Bulldogs return four starting offensive linemen, 1,000-yard rusher Robinson and Dupree from a squad that ranked fourth nationally among FCS teams in rushing last season.
Another option team, Cal Poly, beat ODU 50-37 in 2010, rushing for 326 and passing for 212. In short: The Monarchs would almost be better off playing Oregon.