After stumbling to a disappointing 0-3 start, which included a season-opening 52-10 drubbing to Liberty, Old Dominion shocked the college football world by upsetting Virginia Tech in Week 4 the first victory over a Power 5 in Monarch’s history.
Their massive turnaround resulted from a change at quarterback.
After leading a three-and-out on Old Dominion’s first series against the Hokies, quarterback Steven Williams was pulled for backup Blake LaRussa. The quick decision paid off, as LaRussa proceeded to throw for 495 yards and four touchdowns.
LaRussa kept the momentum going with a 250-yard, two-touchdown performance against East Carolina on Saturday, his team narrowly losing 37-35.
With his offense struggling to find its footing, FAU coach Lane Kiffin might be facing a pressing decision at the quarterback position. If he does decide to make a change, Kiffin can only hope it yields similar results to that of his Week 6 opponent.
THE FILE: FAU (2-3, 0-1), ODU (1-4, 0-2)
The Monarchs’ offense was on life support through the first quarter of the season, showing an inability to establish the run – lead back Jeremy Cox failing to hit 50-plus yards in all three contests – and the air attack being as ineffective, with Williams completing just a hair over 50 percent of his passes with only two touchdowns and a pair of picks. Since LaRussa took over against Virginia Tech two weeks ago, the Monarchs have jumped to 42 points per game and Cox has rumbled for 187 yards and three scores. Cox has done most of that damage on inside zone runs out of the shotgun, as defenses can’t commit to the ground because of 6-foot-3 receivers Jonathan Duhart and Travis Fulgham requiring extra attention on the perimeter. Stopping the Monarchs on early downs is FAU’s recipe for success defensively, as Old Dominion is second-to-last nationally in third-down conversion rate (27.1 percent).
Offensive Players to Watch:
- 35 Jeremy Cox, Sr, RB: He won’t make many miss outside of an occasional jump cut in the hole, but given a full head of steam Cox can absolutely punish defenders who cross his path. It will take a team effort to bring down the 6-foot, 235-pound human bulldozer, as Cox has a vicious stiff arm and an innate ability to keep his legs churning through contact. He is a better pass catcher than his powerful build and physical running style would suggest, as noted by his 12 catches for 91 yards on the year.
- 9 Jonathan Duhart, Sr, WR: While he isn’t the crispest route runner and doesn’t generate consistent separation off the line, Duhart can catch anything thrown to his general vicinity because of his length and strong hands. Almost unguardable in the red zone, Duhart will almost assuredly demand double coverage in close given his ability to box out defenders and make acrobatic catches in the end zone. He’s hauled in 34 catches for 606 yards and six touchdowns through five games.
- 11 Blake LaRussa, Jr, QB: Ranking third among Conference USA quarterbacks in passing efficiency (155.8), LaRussa has been a much-needed shot in the arm for the Old Dominion offense after its putrid start. He isn’t as mobile as his predecessor, but LaRussa can maneuver well in the pocket and is unafraid to keep his eyes down field when defenders are raring in on him. What LaRussa may lack in arm strength on the deep ball he makes up for in touch, shooting passes high into the air and dropping them perfectly into the areas where only his receivers can make plays. The junior signal caller is completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 928 yards, seven touchdowns, and only one interception on the year. He also has a rushing score.
While Old Dominion was revitalized offensively after LaRussa’s insertion at quarterback, its defense hasn’t quite found its spark yet. The Monarchs are giving up a conference-high 41.2 points on average, and are ranked No. 124 nationally in total defense, allowing 513.3 yards per game. Its line is stout, but ODU is devoid playmakers on the second (linebackers) and third (defensive backs) levels of its defense. Old Dominion plays most snaps with a four-man front, but on obvious passing downs they sometimes switch to three-down linemen to get more defenders in coverage and force passers to make tight-window throws. The Monarchs’ defensive line stunts often, meaning tackles and ends will rush through each other’s gaps to try and confuse the opposing offensive linemen out of their assignments. Old Dominion’s stunting has its faults, however. On multiple occasions against Virginia Tech, stunting caused the Monarchs to lose their gap integrity, leaving wide-open lanes for Hokies running backs to get into the open field.
Defensive Players to Watch:
- 7 Oshane Ximines, Sr, DE: After breaking a school record with 8.5 sacks last season, Ximines has picked up right off where he left off and is on a torrid pace in 2018, notching six sacks (tied for No. 5 nationally) through five games. As a team, FAU has only recorded seven sacks. Ximines is extremely quick off the ball, powerful with his hands, and has a deadly swim move that he uses to get around offensive tackles before they can even touch him. His versatility allows him to play at both end spots, and is athletic enough to step out in coverage on occasion. Where Ximines can be exploited is on read options, as he tends to over pursue the running back and lose contain of the edge he’s tasked with defending.
- 34 Lawrence Garner, So, LB: Partly because of his great instincts but also the lack of talent around him, Garner sits at eighth in the country in tackles (60) on the year. The first-year starter is always around the football, either making plays on his own or wrapping up the legs of ball carriers for his teammates to clean up the rest. Garner is at his best when he chases down runs from the backside, as he struggles to fight off of blocks and is more arm-tackler than big-hitter in the hole.
- 31 Sean Carter, Sr, S: Built like most Group of 5 linebackers at six-foot-one, 225 pounds, Carter is the type of defensive back that receivers think twice about when running routes. He plays with an aggressive edge and is a sound tackler (his 35 stops ranks second on the team), and Old Dominion utilizes that skillset by often sending him on blitzes. Carter isn’t comfortable playing back in a deep zone, as he lacks the speed necessary for that role, but has good ball skills. Those skills came in handy against East Carolina, where he tracked down a tipped pass for an interception and subsequent 75-yard return.