BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Old Dominion University of Norfolk does have its devotees. Some of us know some of them personally, and some of us even like some of them personally. They followed the Monarchs through decades when women’s and men’s basketball provided the apexes, and they occasionally yearned out loud for football during the 69 years from 1940 to 2009 when Old Dominion football did not exist. They’re as bonkers for their school as you are for yours, even if they aren’t nationally noisy about it and even if many Americans don’t quite know where they are.
On Saturday, they, the whole, hoping lot of them, got themselves a day, and not just any good day, but one of those days that will last for all of their days . They got such a doozy of a day that it actually cannot be true save for the convenient fact that it was. They got a day when their 10th-year coach, Bobby Wilder, wound up sitting down in front of reporters and saying, “Feeling just really surreal right now.”
They’ll relish their day. Who knows, they might even put it on T-shirts, with the score that defied so many assumptions: Old Dominion 49, No. 13 Virginia Tech 35. Maybe they could include the gambling line somewhere in parentheses.
(It was 28½ .)
If each college football Saturday has its own personality, with some merely rambunctious but others completely out of their minds, the fourth Saturday of this season tilted toward the latter. It had 30-point underdog Army, edging up the field of No. 5 Oklahoma across a fourth quarter as only Army can, 65 yards in 17 plays from its own 1-yard line, the score 21-21 and the evening threatening to go imponderably off the rails. It had No. 7 Stanford rising from the crypt twice at No. 20 Oregon, including that moment when the Ducks had first and goal from the 1-yard line to go up 31-7, so that the Oregon fans who beheld Joey Alfieri’s 80-yard fumble return for Stanford, and Oregon’s eventual 38-31 overtime loss, looked not only forlorn but confused. It had Texas looking legit by beating No. 17 TCU, and we all know that never happens. It had Kentucky, long a harbor of unfulfilled want, reaching 4-0 by thumping No. 14 Mississippi State.
Mostly, though, it had Norfolk — and when does a nation of college football ever have its Norfolk? — as the 20,532 at Foreman Field witnessed the biggest whoa of the young season as well as a big whoa for all ensuing seasons.
Even their number, the smallish 20,532, helps ladle on the enchantment.
Which factor of the upset could they peg as the most stirring? It could be the backup quarterback (Blake LaRussa) who hit 30 of 49 passes for — oh, stop it — 495 yards even as he seemed to indicate he wasn’t sure he would play that much and told reporters, “I never really had a lot of offers, ’cause I’m a shorter guy (5 foot 10). I get that. . . . I’ve kind of always had bad odds.”
It could be that Old Dominion ran up 632 yards of offense against a Bud Foster defense, a fact that doubles as an absurdity. It could be the 1.8 percent chance Old Dominion had of winning, or that defensive end Oshane Ximines said: “It’s a chance. That’s all you need, is a chance.” Or it could be that Virginia Tech played in the smallish stadium partly as a gesture to its numerous Hampton Roads fans, or that Old Dominion lost, 52-10, to Liberty three weeks ago, or that it stood 0-3, or that its previous total of victories against Power Five and ranked teams added up to never.
On Saturday, Nov. 16, 1940, in Bluefield, Va., near the West Virginia line, Bluefield College took a 25-0 win over Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary. That concluded Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary’s season at 0-6, and it left its season point total at zero. The program had a debt figure widely reported at $10,000, a heap back then. It disbanded.
On Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009, in Norfolk, it returned as “Old Dominion,” its name since 1962, with a clamor for tickets, brimming excitement and a 36-21 victory over Chowan (N.C.). It renewed itself in the Football Championship Subdivision, before climbing to the Football Bowl Subdivision and Conference USA for 2014. It won a Bahamas Bowl in 2016, as meaningful a Bahamas Bowl win as anybody ever had.
Still, it got to Saturday at 0-3 after a 5-7 season last year, with losses to Florida International and Charlotte to go with the Liberty defeat, and with no chance against Virginia Tech, the royal family of Virginian college football that had looked stout in this third season of Coach Justin Fuente. Said Wilder, “What needs to happen to have an upset, number one, you have to have belief, and number two, something significant has to happen early in the game,” something “that affects the crowd.”
Stationed at their own 1-yard line, the Monarchs got a 30-yard pass from LaRussa to Travis Fulgham, and in that mysterious way about sports, it seemed to loosen everything even while it led to no scoring. Fulgham, for one, would catch nine passes for 188 yards. Jeremy Cox got a clinching 40-yard touchdown run with 94 seconds left. And Wilder would say: “I don’t think it’s sunk in to anybody in that locker room. They were dancing, they were cheering, they were doing all their stuff, but I don’t think they understand the magnitude yet of what they just did.”
He called it “one of those life-changing moments.”
So from here, Army, which lost 28-21 in overtime, gets to carry its gallantry, and the fact that the No. 5 team looked downright doomed when Army reached the Oklahoma 30-yard line with under three minutes left, and downright haunted when the Sooners’ Austin Seibert hooked a 33-yard field goal attempt on the last play of regulation. Oklahoma gets to go hoping to hone the lessons of the escape toward an upgraded seriousness and playoff intent.
Speaking of escape, Stanford, which looked primed for defeat down 31-28 with 51 seconds left until its Noah Williams forced a fumble from Oregon’s CJ Verdell for Sean Barton to recover, gets to proceed with all its large dreams, even as Coach David Shaw half-lamented, “What can happen if we play like that [the comeback] for 60 minutes?” Tom Herman’s Texas gets to be Texas again after a long time as not quite Texas, and its victories over Southern California and TCU have made its Red River clash with Oklahoma on Oct. 6 suddenly look juicy. Kentucky gets to carry forth its wins over Florida and Mississippi State into perhaps new realms of confidence.
All those things can matter through the season, while Old Dominion’s implausible victory can matter for as long as there’s an Old Dominion.