Rice football will experience many firsts in the first year of the Mike Bloomgren era. They’re hoping one such first is their first win over the Old Dominion Monarchs.
Old Dominion has been a sneaky strong team since joining the FBS in 2014. The Monarchs came one win shy of a bowl berth last season, finishing 5-7. They hold 26-23 record in three seasons in Conference USA, headlined by a 10-win campaign in 2016. Several of those pieces remain on the team, although many have been supplanted with fresh talent.
Head coach Bobby Wilder enters his 10th season in Norvolk, Virginia having spanned the FCS and FBS eras of the school. During his tenure, the Monarchs are 22-9 at home and 11-18 away. That could suggest a strong finish; ODU has three-straight home games before ending their regular season on Nov. 24 against Rice on the road.
Rice and Old Dominion have met two times with the Monarchs holding a perfect 2-0 advantage in series history. Both games so far have been close, each ending in three-point victories for ODU. Here’s how the Monarchs will stack up entering 2018:
The Monarchs return the vast majority of their skill players from a year ago. Outside of former starting running back Ray Lawry and receiver Melvin Vaughn, the team is more or less intact from a year ago. That should be a good sign for ODU, but much of the burden of offensive improvement will rest on the shoulders of sophomore quarterback Steven Williams.
Reasons for optimism on that front are abundant. Williams was thrust into the fray midway through last season and had to learn on the fly. He started slow (0-6, 49.4 percent completions, four touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first six games before ending with a bang (3-1, 68.1 percent completions, two touchdowns and no interceptions).
A step forward for Williams should push the receiving corps forward as well. Four of the Monarchs’ five leading receivers return this season and four of them averaged at least 11 yards per reception. Moving the ball downfield should be an area this offensive improves this season. Five returning starters on the offensive line should help to that end.
At running back senior Jeremy Cox should be next in line. He registered more rushing attempts that Lawry last year but wasn’t nearly as productive, averaging 4.2 yards per carry to Lawry’s 5.6 He does bring a more versatile skillset to the team, though. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound back moonlighted as an adequate pass catcher last season, catching 20 passes for 176 yards.
The defense also brings back a good amount of experience, starting up front on the defensive line. ODU was fourth in Conference USA with 31 sacks last season and lost just 5.5 of those sacks this offseason. The Monarchs have a pair of All-CUSA first team standouts on the line: defensive tackle Miles Fox and end Oshane Ximines.
If that line can generate pressure up front they’ll make things a lot easier for a secondary that had its issues a season ago. The Monarchs finished in the middle of the conference in passing yards allowed but registered only five interceptions while surrendering 18 touchdowns through the air. A veteran group led by strong safety Justin Noye and Justice Davila will be tasked with being more aggressive against the pass.
That leaves the linebackers. Marvin Branch and Jordan Young anchored the ODU defense in the middle last season, accounting for 96 and 85 tackles, respectively. They were also active against the pass, registering seven combined passes defensed.
If the defense can stay healthy, which was a problem for them at times last season, this could become one of the most improved units in Conference USA. Depth concerns prevent sky-high expectations, but the talent is definitely there for ODU in 2018.