In four-plus seasons under Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion's football team has converted 66-of-105 fourth-down attempts. Translation: Wilder defies convention — gambles? — more than most, and, further striking, wins enough to break Vegas.
Saturday night against The Citadel, Wilder ordered three, check that, THREE onside kicks in the second half. The first two worked, produced 10 ODU points and benched the Bulldogs' potent triple-option offense for several critical minutes.
The third was, literally, a less-than-1-in-100 shot.
Comrade Fairbank's research pegs the chances of recovering a surprise onside kick at 15-20 percent. Accepting the 20, the odds of recovering three in a row become 0.8 percent.
Not surprisingly, The Citadel recovered the third kick and took advantage of a short field to score a touchdown. But thanks to a defense that foiled the Bulldogs' subsequent 2-point conversion attempt, Wilder strolled away with stacks of chips in the form of a 59-58 victory.
Deadlines precluded me from attending his postgame news conference, so I read with interest Wilder's expanded comments Monday about the decision he made after ODU took a 59-52 lead with 3:36 remaining.
The third onside kick, he explained at his weekly gabfest, was a combination of clock management, supreme confidence in ODU's spread offense and a concession that its young defense was unlikely to stop The Citadel.
"We're either going to recover it and win (by running out the clock), or we're going to stop them and win, or if they recover it and they score, we're going to have enough time left to score," Wilder elaborated via phone Tuesday.
Had the Monarchs kicked off normally, he added, the Bulldogs could have exhausted the clock while driving 75 yards to a touchdown and 2-point conversion that would have won the game 60-59.
"I'll defend the logic until the end of time," Wilder said. "This was a very calculated decision. I didn't even hesitate on this and think it was risky."
I disagree. Giving The Citadel a short field late in the fourth quarter put an unnecessary burden on a defense ill-equipped for the task. Moreover, after two previous successful onside kicks, the third simply seemed too cute by half.
But that's not the overriding point. The point is, Saturday reflects how Wilder approaches football, indeed perhaps life itself, with mostly innocent, occasionally mischievous, wide-eyed wonder straight out of Curious George: "Gee, this looks like fun."
No matter if "this" is like microwaving a glass bottle of pancake syrup on high for five minutes.
"I don't know if there's anybody in that stadium that has more fun than I do," Wilder said. "The one promise I make to myself every year is, regardless of situation and record, that I'm going to enjoy it, have fun. The last thing I always say to the players before we take the field is, 'have fun.'
"Because when the lights are turned off and the cheering stops, this is still supposed to be a game, and these are still college-aged student-athletes. And at times all of us get caught up in we have to win and have to accomplish a number of different things internally and externally. But the way I approach it and look at it is, No. 1, I want them to have fun, but No. 2 … I always want our football program to be of a very aggressive mindset. I truly believe you need to attack winning."
Wilder recalls the precise details of when that approach "backfired."
With last season's playoff game against Georgia Southern knotted late in the fourth quarter at 35, he disdained a punt on fourth-and-6 from ODU's 39. Taylor Heinicke's pass fell incomplete, and the Eagles promptly drove for the go-ahead score in a 49-35 victory.
"That one didn't work," Wilder said, "and I took a lot of criticism for not punting."
But Wilder enjoys an advantage many don't: His track record is so good that his bosses forgive most any misstep — athletic director Wood Selig is to Wilder what the Man in the Yellow Hat is to Curious George.
That's what happens when you guide a start-up to 9-2 and 8-3 seasons out of the chute, impressive despite tepid schedules. That's what happens when you earn Championship Subdivision playoff bids in your first two seasons of eligibility and your overall record is 40-12. You're playing with house money.