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NC State vs. Old Dominion: Monarchs have answers to find in post-Taylor Heinicke era

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Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Since Old Dominion revived its football program in 2009, the Monarchs have yet to endure a losing season. They were a fast success at the FCS level under head coach Bobby Wilder, winning at least eight games in all four of their seasons at that level and making the playoffs twice.

The Monarchs began their transition to FBS in 2013, becoming a full member of Conference USA in 2014, though they were ineligible for a bowl game per NCAA rules. Old Dominion finished 2014 at 6-6 (4-4), and although that might not be up to the program's recent standards, it qualifies as a successful first run through college football's top level.

It helped that ODU had experienced quarterback Taylor Heinicke to lean on; Heinicke shredded FCS opponents with almost 9,100 yards passing in 2013 and 2014 combined, and his talent translated to FBS. He threw for more than 3,400 yards as a senior in 2014, including 274 yards against NC State.

It's a lot easier to make the FBS transition with a veteran quarterback who can mask some of the deficiencies that come with being at a significant disadvantage in scholarship players. But Heinicke is gone, off to greener--or at least better-paying--pastures as the third-string quarterback for the Vikings.

So where does that leave the Monarchs now?

ODU Offense Off. S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 ???**
5.7 (71) 5.7 (28) 5.7 (110)
2014 57 6.4 (23) 4.9 (33) 7.7 (37)

(**Football Outsiders' S&P+ rankings for 2015 appear to be absent at the moment.)

Old Dominion returns the bulk of its offensive line and its top running back from a year ago, but is missing its leading receiver in addition to Heinike. That running back is Ray Lawry, who has gone from a role player in the offense to the featured contributor. Old Dominion is averaging 50 running plays per game in 2015, up from about 30 in 2014; Lawry alone is averaging nearly 30 carries per game.

So far, that's worked out fine for the Monarchs. Lawry leads all FBS players with 438 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. He is averaging better than seven yards per attempt. But how far can Lawry take the Monarchs?

The telling thing, or the concerning thing if you're Old Dominion, is the lack of production from the quarterback spot despite all of this run support. Freshman Shuler Bentley is completing a modest 55.6% of his throws while averaging a meager 5.7 yards per attempt. In both cases, that's a significant downgrade from what the team got from Heineke last year.

And the competition hasn't exactly been challenging--ODU's first two opponents, Eastern Michigan and Norfolk State, rank below both Troy and Eastern Kentucky in the Sagarin Ratings. Eastern Michigan is dead last in the (FBS-only) S&P+ overall standings.

If the Monarchs hope to reach their first bowl game, they're going to need more from Bentley. But progress might be slow, and right now he simply may not be ready for the task at hand. That task is handling his first power-conference defense, which will no doubt look to halt Lowry and force ODU to make plays through the passing game.

ODU Defense Def. S&P+ national rank Yds Allowed/Play
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Rush
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 ???**
5.0 (64) 5.1 (110) 4.9 (20)
2014 125 6.1 (102) 4.8 (97) 8.3 (116)

(**Football Outsiders' S&P+ rankings for 2015 appear to be absent at the moment.)

The Monarchs lost a half dozen starters off of a unit that really showed the strains of the move to FBS. They allowed 40 points or more in a game seven times in 2014, including a run of six consecutive games. They bottomed out at Western Kentucky, where they gave up 66 points, which is to say that they still lost by two scores even though the offense put up 51.

Their rush defense in 2015 has been discouraging, considering what they've been up against. Based on that, I think it's fair to say that the yards-per-pass-attempt number says more about Old Dominion's opponents than it does about ODU's defense.

The Monarchs are going to need more from the defense because the same support from the offense this team enjoyed last season is not going to be there. That means Old Dominion is more likely to need its defense to win some games this year, but whether or not that's feasible remains to be seen.