NORFOLK — No matter how high-tech your offense, no matter how gifted your quarterback, there comes a time in every team's season where survival hinges on running the football. Line up, go hat-on-hat up front and hand the ball to your tailback.
Soggy conditions and a quality opponent forced pass-crazed Old Dominion into that box Saturday, and thanks in large measure to Tyree Lee, the Monarchs emerged unscathed.
A sophomore from Phoebus High making his first collegiate start, Lee rushed for a career-high 128 yards on 21 carries in ODU's 31-26 victory over Delaware.
Twenty-one carries are a full day's work for an ODU tailback. The sixth-ranked Monarchs (7-1, 4-1 Colonial Athletic Association) spread the field with four and five receivers, and quarterback Taylor Heinicke is the nation's most productive passer.
But a taut game, sloppy weather — go away, Sandy — and Delaware's defensive tactics tested ODU's ground game. Fearing the Monarchs' speed at receiver, the 20th-ranked Blue Hens (5-3, 2-3) played their secondary and linebackers deep, often inviting ODU to run.
"I didn't expect to get this many carries," Lee said, "but I'm happy I did."
Lee is accustomed to many more. As a senior at Phoebus in 2010 he rushed for an Eastern District-record 2,540 yards, leading the Phantoms to a third consecutive state championship.
Last season, Lee appeared in just three games for the Monarchs as Colby Goodwyn (also a Phoebus grad) and Angus Harper took most of the reps. But this year Lee has gradually emerged, running for 113 yards in the opener against Duquesne, 70 at Richmond and 58 last week at Towson.
"He earned the starting job … based on his performance the last couple weeks," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said.
He did more than enough to keep it with play Wilder described as "sensational."
Lee's signature run came on a third-and-2 from ODU's 18 early in the third quarter. With the Monarchs' no-huddle pace catching the defense unprepared, Lee burst through a hole, side-stepped a tackler and raced to Delaware's 19.
Larry Pinkard's illegal block-in-the-back turned what would have been a 73-yard run into a 50-yarder, but ODU scored nonetheless. Four plays later, Lee's 9-yard touchdown run with 6:50 remaining in the quarter gave the Monarchs their largest lead at 28-17.
Late in the fourth quarter, with ODU nursing a 28-26 edge, Lee had gains of 9 and 14 yards to help the Monarchs milk the clock and drive to a 29-yard Jarod Brown field goal with 1:17 left.
Did the afternoon remind Lee of his workhorse days at Phoebus?
"Sort of," he said with a smile. "But it's not the I-formation."
Uh, no it's not, and as Wilder explained, ODU's single-back offense places a lot of burden on the tailback.
"What a lot of people probably don't know today is, I would guess (Tyree) probably had 20 pass plays that he had to pick up a blitz," Wilder said, "that he had to recognize where it was coming from, whether it was a linebacker or a safety. They were in three down (linemen), four down, they were walking guys in and out.
"And he stands back there with Taylor, he's not unlike the quarterback. He's got to find out who's the free blitzer. At times Taylor will try and help him, but at times he's on his own and has to figure it out. He's one of the smartest running backs that I've been around when it comes to recognizing what the defense is doing. You can't play running back for us if you can't blitz pick up, if you can't protect Taylor and if you can't catch the ball out of the backfield."
Indeed, even with Lee working overtime by ODU tailback standards, Heinicke still threw 45 times, completing 36 for 375 yards. He also rushed for three touchdowns as the Monarchs completed what Wilder called an "absolute gauntlet" of five games against playoff-caliber teams — New Hampshire, Richmond, Villanova (lone loss), Towson and Delaware — 4-1.
"I could not be any more pleased," Wilder said, applauding his team for showing "toughness" and "resolve," particularly in the fourth quarter.
The Monarchs will need even more of both if they're to advance deep into postseason. ODU will never stray from its spread roots, but as the weather gets colder and the opponents even better, a viable running game will be essential.
Tyree Lee appears ready.