ODU refocuses after back-to-back heartbreakers, braces for No. 25 Liberty

NORFOLK — Anyone worried about Old Dominion’s ability to bounce back this week after another tough loss can relax.

The Monarchs have done his before.

ODU’s Saturday visit to No. 25 Liberty comes a week after a 28-24 home loss to Coastal Carolina, a result that hinged upon a Chanticleers touchdown with 23 seconds left.

That loss came a week after a 30-27 heartbreaker at No. 21 James Madison.

The losses are part of a remarkable streak of eight consecutive one-score games for the Monarchs (4-5, 3-3 Sun Belt), who have won four of them.

So coach Ricky Rahne had a ready answer when asked about his team’s ability to turn the page.

“I think we have experience with it,” he said.

“Win or lose, you’ve got to be able to refocus, either from an extreme high or a low. It’s just one of those things where I think our guys have a great amount of experience being able to refocus.”

Throw out a 36-17 loss at Virginia Tech to open the season, and ODU’s other four losses have come by an average of four points.

But as Rahne pointed out recently, the Monarchs are neither playing horseshoes nor throwing hand grenades. Three-point losses weigh as heavily on a team’s record as laughers.

“It’s frustrating to lose, regardless,” said senior offensive lineman Leroy Thomas, a right guard who filled in at center last week. “I don’t know that them being close makes it that much worse. Everybody on this team knows how good of a team we have. We know we can beat anybody. We know we’re going to fight. All that’s going to happen, but we’ve got to find a way to finish games, execute for four quarters.”

The Monarchs have led at some point in every loss but the Tech game. Against Coastal, they were up 24-21 with 1:24 to go before former ODU commitment Ethan Vasko orchestrated a 78-yard drive in just 57 seconds to give the Chanticleers the dramatic win.

Sophomore defensive end Kris Trinidad said the Monarchs’ younger players feel for “old guys” like Thomas when they fail to hold a lead. It results in postgame second-guessing.

“You try to finish for them,” Trinidad, a Richmond native, said. “We know in our minds that we can compete with a lot of different teams. It’s just like the finishing part — we try to work on that. It kind of hurts. It stings a little bit when you go home and you think about it.”

Liberty (9-0), which plays in Conference USA, is both ODU’s final non-conference opponent and its next tough one.

“I think we’ve just played a bunch of good football teams this year, and I think this is where the Sun Belt schedule helps us and gets us ready for these types of situations,” Rahne said. “We play great teams week in and week out, so for us, our guys are ready to go play another really quality opponent that’s playing some good football right now.”

No help

Liberty coach Jamey Chadwell joined the Flames in December from Coastal Carolina, where he endured a 49-21 drubbing at the hands of the Monarchs last season.

Rahne said he was hoping to glean something helpful from that game going into Saturday, but he found Chadwell’s varied schemes at Liberty too different to be of any use.

“Probably a little bit more than you would expect from a team in their first year with a program,” Rahne said. “So they’ve done a nice job. I think that’s a credit to their players, but also a credit to their coaching staff to be able to get that done. I thought maybe there would be a little bit more carryover than there probably is.”

Tackling machine

ODU linebacker Jason Henderson tied his own school record with 22 tackles against Coastal, proving yet again why he’s an All-American.

The junior from Dingmans Ferry, Pennsylvania, leads the nation with 141 tackles and 15.7 per game. He led all FBS players last season with 186 tackles, falling just shy of the NCAA single-season record after missing the bulk of one game with an injury.

Rahne encourages fans watching Henderson to look beyond the numbers. Some of Henderson’s best games, his coach said, have come when he hasn’t amassed an obscene number of stops.

“So I don’t judge whether he played well or not based on how many tackles he did,” Rahne said. “I have the luxury of being able to watch the tape and know.

“His ability to consistently tackle people and get them on the ground is, at this point, I guess, ‘unprecedented’ is probably the best way to put it.”

Wearing it

Last week, the Monarchs got the ball at their own 41-yard line tied at 21-21 with 4:15 to play.

After getting two quick first downs to move to the Coastal 26, they threw a pair of incomplete passes that kept time on the clock before settling for a field goal. That gave Vasko — who starred at Oscar Smith High in Chesapeake — and the Chants ample time to mount a retort.

Rahne, in his third season on the sideline as a head coach, regretted throwing the ball instead of milking the clock and forcing Coastal to use timeouts.

“The offensive coordinator was trying to score touchdowns, which is his job,” Rahne said. “And my job is to make sure that I put our kids in the best position to win football games, and I don’t think I did that in that situation.”

Rules are rules

Asked this week if he had an opinion about the sign-stealing scandal at No. 2 Michigan, Rahne took a full five minutes to answer.

“I feel that everybody in the country goes about trying to gain an edge in whatever way they can,” he began. “And that is college football. But there are still rules, and that’s, I think, where maybe people are getting off-kilter a little bit here. Everyone’s like, ‘Well, that’s a stupid rule.’ It’s a rule, though. We’re supposed to be leaders of young men, and we’re supposed to be helping them.”

Among Rahne’s thoughts: The notion of permitting in-person scouting, brought up among coaches three years ago, is “one of the most idiotic things that I’d ever heard” because it would likely only be used to steal hand signals.

Rahne also suggested the use of in-helmet communication devices like the ones used in the NFL.

But even that isn’t foolproof.

“The sad part about that is: Why can’t we trust each other to turn off the helmets on time?” Rahne said. “The reason why is because the reason we’re bringing it up, is because we can’t trust each other.”

A former Michigan staffer is accused of in-person scouting, which is prohibited, for the purpose of deciphering the hand signals of future opponents.

David Hall,

Old Dominion (4-5) at No. 25 Liberty (9-0)

When: 1 p.m.

On the air: ESPN+, 94.1 FM

The Monarchs: Besides a season-opening loss at Virginia Tech, ODU has been in every game until the end. The Monarchs have lost two consecutive games by a combined seven points, and they’ve acquitted themselves well during a tough stretch of the schedule without much to show for it. QB Grant Wilson (1,475 passing yards, 13 TDs, five INTs) has settled in at the position, going four straight games without an interception. LB Jason Henderson (FBS-leading 141 tackles) continues to tackle everything in sight. In 13 attempts, the Monarchs have converted just one fourth down.

The Flames: With 283.3 yards per game, Liberty has the nation’s second-best rushing attack. Wake Forest transfer RB Quinton Cooley (981 yards, 9 TDs) leads the way. QB Kaidon Salter (1,959 passing yards, 23 TDs, 3 INTs) gives Liberty offensive balance — and he’s rushed for 664 yards and seven TDs. The Flames lead Conference USA in both total offense and total defense, holding opponents to 354.7 yards per game. Liberty has forced 19 turnovers this season, which is tied for fifth in the nation.