MOBILE, Ala. – You can knock the Old Dominion’s football team for its record, but you can’t knock the Monarchs for either their heart or their determination to play hard until the final down.
The Monarchs led South Alabama much of the way before succumbing to a Jags’ rally and falling 27-20 in their final game of the season.
The season began well for ODU (3-9 overall, 2-6 Sun Belt), which upset Virginia Tech, 20-17, in its opener and then crushed Coastal Carolina, 49-21, in a nationally-televised game on the road.
However, the Monarchs hit a tailspin, and although they were competitive in most of their final six games, they lost them all.
Injuries played a major role in the downturn. The Monarchs lost their two offensive playmakers, tight end Zack Kuntz and wide receiver Ali Jennings III, earlier this season. Offensive tackle Nick Saldiveri, whose next game will be in the Reese’s Senior Bowl on Feb. 4 at South Alabama, did not play, either.
Nonetheless, the outcome of this game was not determined until the final seconds.
“We’re never going to give up, no matter what we’re always going to fight,” said quarterback Hayden Wolff, who completed 21 of 36 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns.
“It’s hard, this one hurts, to not go out with a win for our seniors, the guys that are leaving,” Wolff added. “We were put in the right place in the first half by our coaches and went out there and executed.
“We did not execute in the second half. We made so many mistakes, things we can control.”
Every time the Monarchs got their offense going, they would stumble by making penalties or executive poorly. A potential game-tying penalty was wiped off the scoreboard by a chop block.
Head coach Ricky Rahne was somber at game’s end. Asked about how hard his team worked, he shrugged his shoulders, and made reference to ODU President, Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., and Dr. Wood Selig, the Monarch director of athletics.
“Dr. Hemphill and Dr. Selig pay me to go out and win games,” he said. “They don’t pay me for mortal victories. We’ve got to find a way to win those close games. We were in the majority of these games and just didn’t find a way to close them out. And that’s my job.”
Coastal Carolina won the Sun Belt East and will play either South Alabama (10-2, 7-1) or Troy for the Sun Belt title next Saturday.
The Monarchs had a couple of remarkable individual performances.
Blake Watson, the 5-foot-9, 192-pound junior running back from Queens, New York, broke the 100-yard rushing mark for the ninth time in his career and combined for 198 total yards.
Meanwhile, linebacker Jason Henderson collected 18 tackles in one of the most courageous performances in ODU football history. Henderson was injured and carried off the field last week at Appalachian State. Henderson played in obvious pain with his leg tightly taped. He had a chance to set the FBS record for most tackles in a season but he had just two tackles at App State before going out and fell short of the 25 he needed on Saturday.
Texas Tech’s Lawrence Fluegence set the record of 193 in 2002. Henderson finished with 186, and is third on the single-season tackles list.
ODU led 20-13 at halftime and was into the game until the final minutes largely because of the Monarch defense.
The Monarch offense, however, failed to score on their first three possessions of the second half, and the Jags scored twice to take a 27-20 lead.
South Alabama ran almost seven minutes off the clock on its final TD drive, which covered 69 yards and was capped by a 2-yard pass from quarterback Carter Bradley to DJ Thomas Jones with 6:40 left.
ODU then threatened to tie the score, and for a few short seconds, appeared to do so, when Wolff found Isiah Paige for a 25-yard touchdown.
However, the score was wiped off the board by a chop-block penalty. Three plays later, Wolff was sacked, ending ODU’s hopes of a comeback.
ODU led most of the first half, thanks in large part to Watson, who rushed 14 times for 91 yards and caught five passes for 79 more.
ODU opened the game with an impressive, 75-yard touchdown drive that last a little more than two minutes. Watson hauled in a 36-yard pass to move ODU into South Alabama territory, and then Wolff hit Javon Harvey for the 26-yard touchdown.
South Alabama responded with a 75-yard TD drive, capped by Carter Bradley’s 10-yard touchdown pass on third and goal to Caullin Lacy.
Watson rushed for 46 yards on three carries on its next drive, which stalled inside the red zone. Ethan Sanchez then kicked a 33-yard field goal to give ODU a 10-7 lead.
After South Alabama’s Diego Guajardo knotted the score at 10-all early in the second quarter, Watson then combined for 54 rushing and receiving yards in another ODU 75-yard TD drive, which Watson capped with a 6-yard reception.
South Alabama narrowed the lead to 17-13 on a Guajardo 46-yard field goal with 2:52 left in the game.
The Jags called timeouts after two ODU 1-yard gains. But it backfired on them on the third play, as Wolff lofted a 42-yard pass to wide receiver Levi Wentz at the South Alabama 45.
ODU appeared to score on a 10-yard pass from Wolff to freshman Ahmarian Granger at the back of the end zone, but it was wiped off the scoreboard after replay officials ruled Granger was out of bounds.
Watson then hauled in an 8-yard pass to the 2, where ODU had a first and goal. Three plays later, ODU was still on the two and had just 14 seconds left and no timeouts.
The field-goal unit quickly ran on the field, and with one second left on the clock, the ball was snapped and Sanchez booted an 18-yard field goal to make to 20-13 at the half.
“We left too many plays out on the field,” Rahne said. “We didn’t tackle as well as we’ve been doing. We had some big penalties. And that was the difference in the game.”
Of Henderson’s performance, Rahne said: “He got carted off the field in the last game and he had 18 tackles and played as hard as he did. He’s shown how tough he is all year.”
Notes: Right tackle Santana Saunders made his first start of the season … Javon Harvey caught his fourth touchdown of the year with a 26-yard snag in the first quarter … Blake Watson caught his second touchdown pass of the season on a six-yard shovel pass from Hayden Wolff … For the eighth time this season, Hayden Wolff threw for two or more touchdowns … Levi Wentz’s 42-yard second quarter catch was the first of his career … Ahmarian Granger caught a career-high five passes for 71 yards … Blake Watson set the ODU single-season record for receptions by a running back. He caught six passes and had 37 grabs on the year… Watson notched his third 100-yard rushing game of the year and ninth of his career … Jason Henderson recorded his 11th double-digit tackle game of the season … Henderson finished the day with 18 tackles and 186 on the season. His 186 tackles are the third most in a single-season in FBS history.