And while the football programs at Old Dominion and Virginia Tech remain miles apart, the two schools have quite a bit in common, especially in the aftermath of last week’s Hurricane Florence.
Virginia Tech’s game on Saturday with East Carolina was canceled, giving the Hokies an extra week of practice. The Monarchs’ game against Charlotte was moved up from Saturday to Thursday, but a week later both schools are still dealing with the aftermath of Mother Nature’s wrath.
“Still praying for those people in North/South Carolina,” ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. “We still have some kids right now that are trying to make their way back from this. We feel very fortunate to be standing here before you today knowing that were in a good situation in this region.”
As the Carolinas recover from Florence, Wilder and Hokies coach Justin Fuente finally can focus on football. The Hokies (2-0) last played on Sept. 8 when they demolished William & Mary 62-17. Establishing a routine has not been easy for Fuente.
A week after squandering a 17-point lead against Florida International, ODU suffered a 28-25 loss at Charlotte on Sept. 13. In the loss, the Monarchs had an extra-point blocked and missed on two 2-point conversions.
Saturday’s game marks the first time the Monarchs have faced an AP Top 25 opponent. Despite ODU’s 0-3 record, the Hokies are not taking the Monarchs lightly.
“We’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for the ODU program and the job Bobby’s done there, literally building it from scratch,” Fuente told the Richmond Times. “You can see on film that they are well-coached. They play incredibly hard, and we’ll need to have a great week of preparation this week.”
The job Wilder has done has been noteworthy. He took over the program in 2007 when it was an FCS Independent and within 10 years, the Monarchs had won a bowl game in just their third year in the FBS.
This year, though, the program has taken a step backward, starting 0-3 for the first time since Wilder took over. Losing to a Charlotte team that went 1-11 last season, especially stung.
The Monarchs, who return 18 starters including quarterback Steven Williams Jr., are averaging only 18.3 points per game and only 3.7 yards per rush.
Wilder understands, this week is going to be one of the biggest challenges of his tenure in Norfolk.
“Virginia Tech has a passionate fan base,” Wilder said. “They’ll have a lot of people here. We’ve got a passionate fan base that’s rallied behind us and been supportive since the day we started. I think there’s a lot to this game no matter where either team is at this point.”
Both programs view Saturday’s game historic — not often does a Top 25 team schedule home-and-homes with a mid-major. Foreman Stadium will sure to be rocking and Wilder hopes that gives his players an advantage.
“This week we’ve got a top 10 team coming to town, Virginia Tech; very deserving of their ranking; they are outstanding in all three phases of what they do,” Wilder said. “Day to day we’ve got to work to get better, that’s the only way we’re going to fix this is to get better each day.
Fuente is concerned his team has not been able to establish a routine heading into the fourth week of the season. Last week’s cancellation gave the staff extra time to work with some of the younger players, but things didn’t go as planned.
“We let the emotion of not playing a game get in the way of our preparation and our improvement,” Fuente told the Roanoke Times. “We have things we are trying to accomplish and we need to take advantage of those opportunities.”
By the end of the week, players responded and Fuente thinks his team is ready to go.
The two teams have played only once, last year when the Hokies blanked the Monarchs 38-0 at Lane Stadium.
If the Monarchs are to have a chance, they’ll have to account for defensive tackle Ricky Walker on every play. One of the top defenders in the nation, Walker is the anchor of Bud Foster’s “Lunch Pail” defense.
“There’s plenty of reasons why we call Rick Walker the Bell Cow of our defense,” Foster said. “First, he’s a dynamic football player. He’s explosive and powerful. But he brings much more than talent and athleticism to our defense. He’s the guy everybody looks to as a leader. He’s the guy they follow in terms of work ethic, preparation and attention to detail.”
On offense, the Hokies are led by quarterback Josh Jackson. Jackson has thrown for 424 yards and three scores in Virginia Tech’s two wins. The Hokies racked up 305 rushing yards against William & Mary, the highest total of the Fuente era. Steven Peoples leads the ground game with two scores and 99 yards while DeShawn McClease has added one score and 121 yards rushing.
The Monarchs let true freshman running back Lala Davis loose in the loss to Charlotte and Davis rushed for 63 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries.
On defense, sophomore linebacker Lawrence Garner has recorded double-digit tackles in all three games and ranks second in the country with 42 tackles.
The Hokies will focus on corralling Jonathan Duarte, who leads Conference USA in receiving yards and is 11th in the FBS with 17 receptions for 360 yards and three touchdowns.