ODU Squeezes by Arkansas State 29-26 & Gain First Win in Sun Belt Conference

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Elena Harris

Redshirt Sophomore RB Keshawn Wicks goes head on with two Red Wolve defenders on the run

Art Neal , Associate Sports Editor

If you ask head coach Ricky Rahne, the Old Dominion football team is known for its tendency “to go 1-0 every week.” The Monarchs did just that on Saturday night when they faced off against their first Sun Belt opponent of the season, the Arkansas State Red Wolves, here in Norfolk. The Monarchs came into the contest 1-2 after a heartbreaking loss to Virginia 16-14 due to a Cavalier field goal with no time remaining. Arkansas State arrived with a record of 1-2, coming off a loss to the University of Memphis. 

Redshirt Sophomore QB Hayden Wolff finds his target and forces the throw over the Red Wolves defender (Elena Harris)

Old Dominion won the coin toss and decided to defer their possession to the second half, so play began around 6 p.m. with an ODU kickoff. This kick was not returnable to open the game and Arkansas State started their first drive of the game on their own 25-yard line. This first drive for the Red Wolves was not fruitful as they could not make it past midfield due to quality play on the part of the ODU defense. Sadly, ODU could not carry the momentum of the defensive stop onto the offensive side of the ball, and they went three-and-out on their first drive. On a third down in the closing minutes of the first quarter, redshirt sophomore Hayden Wolff barely missed the hands of junior wide receiver Ali Jennings, which had a high potential to put ODU on the board with a touchdown. Despite this, the Monarchs attempted an unsuccessful field goal to end the first quarter and left the game scoreless through 15 minutes of play. 

Junior WR Ali Jennings III talks on the phone to his offensive personnel and try to make adjustments (Elena Harris )

The second quarter continued with the impressive performance by ODU’s pass rushers gaining three sacks in the second quarter alone as well as a handful of tackles for loss to stunt the Arkansas State run game. Despite the stout play of the ODU pass rush, the Monarch secondary struggled, giving up some big runs on third and long. This gave the Red Wolves a chance to score a touchdown, which put them ahead 9-0 with 9:27 left in the half. This followed an offensive holding call in the endzone which resulted in a safety. The ODU offense was quiet in the first half, excluding a 20-yard catch and run for sophomore wide receiver Isiah Paige which gave ODU one of their only first downs of the first half. Fast forward to right around halftime, and the Red Wolves kicked a field goal with 0:37 remaining to put themselves up 12-0. ODU sadly could not capitalize in the closing seconds of the first half as they went three and out before heading to the locker room. 

The second half of this game was a different story as aspects of the Monarch game plan came out firing in the third quarter. QB Wolff started his second-half campaign strong as not even two minutes into the second half he threw for a 24-yard gain to one of his favorite targets: 6’8” TE Zach Kuntz. This first down to the redshirt junior put ODU into Arkansas State territory and easily within striking distance of the goal line. Soon after this big gain, Jennings got involved in the fun and made a huge catch downfield that was knocked out of his arms at the goal line, causing the placement to be at the Arkansas State one-yard line. On the next play, ODU scored on a one-yard run by running back redshirt freshman Tariq Sims. This was his first collegiate touchdown and came in a huge moment to help ODU climb their way back into the contest, the score now 12-7 with 13:00 remaining in the third quarter. 

Arkansas State was quick to respond to the Monarch offense as they added their own points off a 49-yard touchdown pass to move their lead to 19-7 with 11:35 remaining. The Monarch offense responded again as they scored for the second time in a five-minute span off a 77-yard heave that found the hands of star wide receiver Jennings. This play was the fifth longest pass play recorded in ODU football history. After the touchdown, the score was brought to 19-14 in favor of Arkansas State.

Sophomore CB Lamareon James returns the kickoff against Ark. State (Elena Harris )

The rest of the third quarter was a showcase for the ODU defense, especially the deadly pass rush that had been flustering the Red Wolf quarterback all night, forcing him to throw on the run and outside of the pocket. Highlights of the defense included multiple open field tackles made by sophomore linebacker Jason Henderson on his way to a 21-tackle game, which broke both the school record and his personal record of 18 tackles, which he tallied in an earlier game this season. With this dominant performance, Henderson leads the country with 63 tackles through four games. 

To add to the dominant defensive third-quarter performance, the ODU pass rush struck gold as redshirt sophomore defensive end Deevee Harris snagged a deflected pass for a pick-six, giving the Monarchs a 21-20 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter. The final two minutes of the third quarter were uneventful, excluding the exit of the Arkansas State starting quarterback to the sideline with an apparent leg injury. 

The final quarter of play began with ODU possessing a one-point lead and the ball in the hands of the Red Wolves with a new alternating quarterback scheme present. This new scheme came to the rescue of the Red Wolf as they scored on a QB run with 12:10 left in the game. This gave the Red Wolves a lead of 26-21, challenging the ODU offense to respond. This opportunity stemmed from great play by the defensive line which forced a sack and fumble recovery that gave the offense the ball in enemy territory. This gave the ODU offense the ball on the Arkansas State 29-yard line. The offense struggled to capitalize as they ended up in a 4th and 3 situation. 

Sophomore LB Jason Henderson gets the crowd pumped up as the Monarchs try to fend off Ark. State final push. (Elena Harris )

To the luck of the Monarchs, a  defensive pass interference call was issued on an attempted pass to Wide Receiver Javon Harvey. This gave ODU an automatic first down and the ball on the Arkansas State 7-yard line. Wolff and crew did not look back; the following play Wolff dumped the ball off to TE Kuntz who took the ball home into the endzone giving ODU a one-point lead again, 27-26, with under seven minutes left of play. The Monarchs again had the odds in their favor as they scored a two-point conversion using a run from redshirt freshman  Obi Sanni to bring the score to 29-26 in favor of ODU. The remainder of the game was a show put on by the ODU pass rush. Sacks by Brandt-Epps as well as Safeties Tobias Harris and R’tarriun Johnson helped to seal the win despite some late pass plays by the Red Wolves which were to no avail.

This win was substantiated by the offensive weapons of Kuntz and Jennings, who both scored touchdowns in the game. Jennings with his 140 receiving yards holds the #2 spot in the NCAA for total receiving yards. The win was also in no small part thanks to the ODU defense. Henderson tallied his record 21 tackles and Linebacker Malik Henry added 12 tackles to the effort. The defensive line was dominant as they tallied seven sacks on the evening, each by a different player. 

When asked about the “tale of two halves” coach Ricky Rahne commented, “Yeah, everyone asked me that. If I knew that, we wouldn’t have a tale of two halves.”

This game was definitely a great second-half win for the Monarchs. ODU football will look forward to next weekend when they welcome another in-state team, Liberty University, into Norfolk. Kick-off is scheduled for 6 p.m.