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ODU Once Again on National Stage

by Harry Minium

When the clock hit quadruple zeroes, thousands of Old Dominion University students poured onto the turf at S.B. Ballard Stadium.

They massed around the team and bobbed up and down to the music playing on stadium speakers as they celebrated a momentous 20-17 victory over Virginia Tech.

"It was crazy," said ODU tailback Blake Watson, who scored the winning touchdown with under a minute left. "It was something I'll never forget."

"I've never taken so many selfies in all my life," added quarterback Hayden Wolff, whose 38-yard pass to Ali Jennings III to the Tech 1-yard line with 2 minutes to go set up Watson's game-winner.

It was a joyous celebration that looked all too familiar for Hokie fans.

Four years ago, ODU also defeated Virginia Tech, 49-35, at old Foreman Field in what ESPN termed one of the biggest upsets in college football history.

Tech at the time was ranked 13th nationally, and ODU, a 29-point underdog, was winless.

Videos of ODU students storming the field then were seen by millions. ODU football suddenly became a national story.

The victory on Sept. 2 was different. First, this game was played at Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium. Most of Foreman Field was razed when ODU did a $71.5 million makeover of the stadium in 2019. It's now a big-time venue worthy of hosting a big-time game.

Moreover, ODU football is in a much better place. It has been revived under Coach Ricky Rahne, ODU's Thurmond Family Head Coach.

The Monarchs, who were coming off their first bowl game since 2016, were just 6-point underdogs.

Yet in some ways, this victory may have been more consequential.

Virginia Tech has the state's most popular football program. The Hokies have won four ACC titles and played for a national championship.

On Friday night, with a photo of Norfolk's Waterside in the background, a tweet from Virginia Tech said simply: "Our State."

But on the field, where it counts, ODU has now beaten the Hokies twice in four outings, and the teams are scheduled to meet in each of the next nine seasons.

That first victory was seen by many as a fluke. Winning twice at home against Tech isn't a fluke. It's a trend.

ODU had scheduled the game for Friday night, a time when there were only a handful of other games, and it was nationally televised on ESPNU. That allowed the Monarchs to again claim a major share of the national limelight.

The scene of students again storming the field was the most enduring visual of the evening.

It was replayed repeatedly on national TV Saturday during a long day of college football. A short video posted on Twitter by ESPN's Sports Center quickly accrued more than a million views.

For much of Friday night, Old Dominion football was the second-leading trending subject on Twitter.

Big games draw big crowds, and Friday's game drew the largest home crowd in ODU history - a sellout of 21,944. Big games also draw celebrities, and this game did as well.

Political leaders, including Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares, were there. Gov Youngkin was exuberant as he toured the tailgate lots with Virginia Secretary of Transportation W. Sheppard "Shep" Miller III, a Norfolk native and ODU athletic donor.

Youngkin recalled that as a youngster growing up in Hampton Roads, he rooted for ODU's basketball program. That was, of course, before ODU began playing football in 2009.

He was officially neutral on Friday. But he said: "To have the chance to see ODU play Virginia Tech right here in Hampton Roads, in this beautiful stadium, on the campus of Old Dominion, I wouldn't miss it."

Miyares, who was raised in Virginia Beach, was also publicly neutral while mingling with ODU boosters in a suite. His wife, Paige, is a Virginia Tech graduate.

"He'd better not root for ODU tonight," she said with a smile.

Virginia Tech's program has traditionally been buoyed by great players from Hampton Roads, and three of the biggest names in Tech history - Bruce Smith, Michael Vick and Virginia Beach City Councilman Aaron Rouse - were there.

ODU countered with the greatest player ever to don Monarch colors - Washington Commanders and former ODU star quarterback Taylor Heinicke.

"I haven't been to a home game in a long time, but I had to be here for this game," he said. "I wanted to see ODU beat Virginia Tech."

When Heinicke returned to the Commanders' training facility in Northern Virginia on Saturday, he left presents for his three teammates who are Tech alums. ODU shirts were hanging in their lockers.

On Monday morning, he wore an ODU hat around the facility.

Bragging rights, indeed.

ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, PhD., anxiously walked the sidelines much of the game with his wife, First Lady Dr. Marisela Rosas Hemphill.

"I am delighted that the Monarchs were able to deliver another thrilling home win against Virginia Tech," he said after the game. "This win demonstrates how well prepared our players and coaches were to meet the challenge.

"Monarchs never quit fighting!"

That clearly has been the hallmark of ODU football since Rahne was hired in December 2019.

ODU did not play in 2020 because of the pandemic, a major setback for his efforts to rebuild a program that was 1-11 in 2019. Then, in 2021, the Monarchs lost six of their first seven games, three in heartbreaking fashion.

Under the circumstances, many teams would have folded. Yet ODU won its last five games to quality for its first bowl bid since 2016.

Rahne has built ODU's program with what he calls the three Cs: Care, Compete and Character. He has also thrown in a large dose of family values.

Wives, girlfriends and children of coaches have unfettered access to the L.R. Hill Sports Complex and practice field. ODU players often dine with Rahne and his wife, Jen, and at the homes of assistant coaches.

"Being so close with the coaches' families is pretty special," Watson said. "ODU football is one big family."

Soaking wet from a Gatorade bath, Rahne grew emotional - his face reddened, and he teared up - as he talked about his wife and children, Ryder and Jake, and mother, Deb, during his post-game press conference.

"My son, for his 13th birthday, all he wanted was a sideline pass," Rahne said. "Being able to look down there today and see him, that was awesome.

"It was my Mom's birthday today. My godmother was there. You guys know how much I love my family. To love something so much like I do my family and still love going to work every day is pretty awesome. . . . This is a very special place."

He stopped for a few seconds to regain his composure.

"I talk about my 'why' to my players sometimes. My wife is a Cornell-educated engineer. She's probably the smartest human being I know. And she gave up what could have been for me. Who knows what she could have done?

"You give that up so that I could pursue my dreams and I can do things like this. Not very many people have someone like that in their lives."

Recruiting publications, including 247Sports, noted that the victory will boost ODU's recruiting efforts, especially in the 757.

"Maybe the one benefit (of beating Tech) is that kids realize they can come here and chase their dreams and win big games," Rahne said.

Watson said that's a message he and his teammates give to recruits.

"We're laying stones for the future," he said. "We have a very good program, and we're on the rise."

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