Few teams that lead the nation or are near the top in several offensive categories think that they have pressing issues. But things are different at Old Dominion, which set the bar absurdly high early in the season and has experienced slippage of late.
ODU still leads the Football Championship Subdivision in scoring offense (45.67 ppg) and total offense (575.0 ypg) and is second in pass offense (404 ypg). Quarterback Taylor Heinicke leads the nation in total offense (446.29 ypg) and tops the CAA in passing yardage (397.7 ypg) by a wide margin.
However, Heinicke and the Monarchs haven't approached those numbers the past two weeks, in a loss to Villanova and a win at Towson.
"Offensively, this is two weeks in a row where I don't feel like we played very well," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. "The biggest reason, from talking to Coach (Brian) Scott, our offensive coordinator, and the other coaches is just a consistent lack of execution. The first five games we executed very well on offense. That combination of protection, quarterback reads, (pass) routes, throwing and catching, was the best in the country through five weeks. The last two weeks it wasn't."
In the first five weeks, ODU averaged 56.2 points per game, 654.2 yards total offense and 465 yards passing. Heinicke averaged 456.2 yards passing, which included the off-the-charts, 730-yard performance in the tennis match-with-shoulder pads versus New Hampshire.
The past two weeks, the 'Narchs have totaled 44 points, averaged 377 yards and passed for an average of 251.5 yards.
Wilder said the slippage is across the board. Pass protection has been spotty. Receivers aren't running crisp routes and getting to the proper spots. Balls were dropped. Even Heinicke, he said, has been off a bit and hasn't gotten the ball to the proper receiver that a particular play and defensive coverage dictate.
"The hardest thing in our offense is, if we don't have everybody on the same page, then we're going to look average at times," Wilder said. "We're going to look like we can't throw it and catch it."
Wilder acknowledged that the Monarchs are facing better defenses. In Towson's case, the CAA leader and one of the nation's best. ODU still scored 30 points, had 404 yards and Heinicke passed for 264 yards.
"All due respect to Towson, but I feel like we left 200 yards and 21 points out there," Wilder said. "That's a 600-yard game and a 50-point game if we execute and stay on what we're supposed to do."
The Villanova game was worse, offensively. ODU suffered the most lopsided loss in the program's brief history, 38-14. The Monarchs managed 350 yards, and Heinicke completed only half of his passes (16-for-32) for 239 yards. After scoring 14 points and amassing 193 yards in the first quarter, they accomplished squadoosh the last three quarters: 157 yards and zero points.
Though ODU operates a pass-first offense, the issues are compounded by problems running the ball. The Monarchs rushed for 111 yards against 'Nova and 140 against Towson. Against Towson, Heinicke was the leading rusher with 71 yards – 36 of which came on a dash up the middle of the field for a touchdown when he recognized that the Tigers were dropping extra defenders into coverage and turning their backs, leaving a gaping hole.
Wilder said that the line hasn't blocked particularly well on running plays, nor have the backs read the holes and seams that open.
Delaware coach K.C. Keeler is next up, attempting to slow down the Monarchs. He is open to suggestion, but earlier this week said he didn't think there's a defensive magic bullet.
"I think it's about getting pressure with four (defenders) and try to cover them and hopefully when they run by you a couple times, they don't hit those big plays," Keeler said. "We've been looking at the videotape trying to figure out: Who's done a great job stopping them? Really, they've stopped themselves. When they stopped, they stopped themselves more than not. You've got to get a little lucky. It's about getting pressure and hoping that when they get behind you, they miss a couple of those big passes, because you know during the course of a game they're going to get behind you more than once or twice."
The Monarchs have a month, four games, to regain their offensive mojo: the Blue Hens on Saturday, then struggling Georgia State, dangerous William and Mary, and a showdown finale at JMU.