A season to remember; ODU proves doubters wrong in 2016

NORFOLK (WAVY) – The 2015 season ended with a gut-wrenching 33-31 loss to Florida Atlantic on their home field. Old Dominion finished 5-7, and by that two-point margin, missed out on the postseason.

An empty feeling sat with the Monarchs for the duration of the offseason, through Spring training, into Fall camp, all the way to the team’s season-opener against Hampton to start 2016.

What also sat with the team was a prediction by many prognosticators who said the Monarchs would finish no better than sixth out of seven teams in the East Division of Conference USA. “We took that to heart,” said running back Ray Lawry. “We had a team meeting, (coaches were) pissed. We felt disrespected.

“So, we knew we had to make a statement this season.”

The statement: a 9-3 overall record, and a 7-1 mark in Conference USA. By far their best season since transitioning from the FCS to the FBS level of college football.

“It’s amazing. It’s really unexplainable. This is one of the best feelings in the world,” said senior defensive back Aaron Young.

The journey wasn’t easy. The team began the season with a 54-21 win over Hampton, then lost the next two straight (at Appalachian State and at North Carolina State) in blowout fashion.

They followed that up by winning their next three games, and after a somewhat demoralizing 59-24 loss at eventual division champion Western Kentucky, the Monarchs regrouped and finished the season on a five-game win streak.

“This team, I’ve learned, embraces chaos. They really like chaos,” said head coach Bobby Wilder following his team’s 42-28 win over Florida International in the season finale. “They embrace it, they love it. We practice it every week.

“They love it and that’s what makes me the most proud. It’s not just the wins, it’s how  they respond to adversity.”

And just as ODU had to overcome challenges over the course of the season, they had to come back in their last two games at Florida Atlantic, then home against FAU.

Thanks to an improved, experienced, and punishing defense, two explosive running backs in Lawry (the fifth-best rusher in Conference USA) and Jeremy Cox, an NFL-caliber receiver in Zach Pascal (893 receiving yards, 8 touchdowns) and a dynamic quarterback in David Washington, this team proved they were “no fluke,” as Young put it.

“The best feeling is just proving doubters wrong and that motivated this team all year, regardless of the losses that we took,” said Pascal. “We stuck together and fought through every adversity that we could.”

Seemingly overcome with joy after his team’s 42-28 win on Saturday, Wilder could only admire the chemistry, work ethic, and resiliency his team put on display throughout 2016. “I’ve been coaching 30 years and it’s one of those seasons that I just wish would never end,” he said.

And after 12 regular season games, against preseason predictions, the season isn’t over yet.