Georgia State had the football at its 10-yard line, a seven-point lead and just 77 seconds remaining as Old Dominion University Athletic Director Wood Selig paced the sidelines on a blustery Saturday night.
He thought of ESPN’s dynamic probability-of-victory tracker. “And I thought our chances of winning were infinitesimal,” Selig said.
One percent? “Maybe less,” he replied.
So did the fans around Jen Rahne, wife of ODU football coach Ricky Rahne, who were exiting S.B. Ballard Stadium in droves.
“People were telling me that we had a great season and giving me hugs,” she said.
In a suite high above the stands, ODU donor Cynthia Faschini was talking with her son-in-law Josh Wallach, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Sciences, as people were putting on their coats and preparing to leave.
“I said to him, if we get a safety and score a touchdown, then we could win,” she said. He confirmed that ODU “could” win that way.
But the odds, he warned, were so long.
ODU quarterback Grant Wilson was kneeling on the Monarch sideline in prayer. He also knew there was little hope.
“I was praying to God, asking Him for a miracle,” he said.
Against all the odds, the miracle occurred.
On first down, Tahj Re-El tackled Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger for a loss, and a play later, Grainger was tackled in the end zone by Terry Jones and Shawn Asbury.
The two-point safety narrowed the lead to 24-19.
Then came an Isiah Paige 26-yard free kick return, a 43-yard pass from Wilson to Reymello Murphy and, on the last play of the game, a 2-yard touchdown run by Wilson.
Just like that, ODU claimed a 25-24 victory that clinched the Monarchs’ second bowl bid in three seasons.
It was the second game in a row the Monarchs won on the game’s last play – Ethan Sanchez kicked the winning field goal as time expired in ODU’s 20-17 victory at Georgia Southern on Nov. 18.
Players, officials and fans streamed onto the field as Wilson was crushed by a wave of teammates. Aaron Rittgers, an assistant director of sports performance, walked into the locker room with tears streaming down his face.
Michele Mulich, an ODU super fan was on the field crying like a baby. “I never cry,” she said. “But the way these guys never gave up, the way they never stopped trying, that made me cry.”
Ray Wittersheim, an ODU donor known as “The Juice Man” for passing out orange juice to ODU athletes, was also bawling. They saw each other and hugged.
Wearing a Hudson Blue long coat, Jen Rahne raced down the steps and onto the field and leapt into her husband’s arms.
Her 10-second hug was captured by ESPN+ cameras and has been seen hundreds of thousands of times on social media networks.
“Don’t let other conferences tell you they mean more because they have more TV money,” said a @redditCFB Twitter post attached to the video.
“I kissed him and nearly strangled him and told him how much I loved him,” Jen said.
ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., was also celebrating – he could be seen hugging Tristin Iannone, ODU’s football director of operations while the Rahnes hugged just feet away.
Inside the locker room, LaMareon James, the cornerback from Norfolk, walked in with head trainer Justin Walker on his arm. James had been knocked out by a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit in the first quarter.
When released from the hospital, “He said he didn’t want to go home. He wanted to be with his teammates,” said Dr. Brad Butkovich, an ODU team doctor.
James shed tears as he watched his teammates celebrate like the kids they are, knowing they will go to a bowl game. The Monarchs will find out their bowl destination on Sunday when ESPN hosts its bowl presentation show beginning at noon.
There’s no way of predicting where ODU will end up, and that’s in part because the Sun Belt Conference had an extraordinary year. The Sun Belt led the Football Bowl Subdivision conferences with 12 bowl bids, one short of the all-time record of 13 set two years ago by the SEC.
“It doesn’t matter where we play,” Rahne said. “These kids deserve a chance to play again.”
Certainly, his players exceeded expectations. The Monarchs were picked to finish last among the 14 Sun Belt teams in the coaches’ preseason poll.
And little wonder. Of the 116 players on ODU’s roster, 58 were newcomers. The Monarchs returned 10 starters from the team that finished 3-9 in 2022 and were without a quarterback who had played in an FBS game.
Yet this team claimed its first victories ever over Appalachian State and Georgia State and took Wake Forest to the wire, then won its final two games.
ODU played 10 one-score games decided by eight points or less – the first ever Sun Belt team to do so – and won six. Had the Monarchs managed to hold on against Coastal Carolina three weeks ago, they would be playing in the Sun Belt championship game on Saturday.
Now that ODU is in a bowl game, the University will continue to receive national attention through late December.
ODU got some high-profile attention early Sunday morning. As ODU graduate Jay Harris hosted SportsCenter on ESPN, sportscasters came running into the studio to give him high-fives after the network showed Wilson’s touchdown run.
During its bowl game, ODU will have a three-hour window likely on an ESPN network in which people all over the country will see the Monarchs play and catch a glimpse of ODU’s campus on advertisements provided by the University.
Such is the light a successful FBS program can shine upon a university.
Meanwhile, there is no rest for the weary.
After going to bed at 2 a.m. Sunday, Ricky Rahne was up at 7:30 and walked the 15 minutes or so to his office, where he spent the morning recruiting for next season. In the afternoon, he received a standing ovation as he watched the ODU basketball team defeat Drexel.
“The man is a machine,” Jen Rahne said. “I don’t know how he does what he does. He has such stamina.”
Her husband briefly teared up during his postgame press conference Saturday night, and it wasn’t the first time in what has at times been an exasperating season of near misses. ODU led Wake Forest 17-0 and lost, led Marshall 21-3 and lost.
“He’s gotten emotional a few times this fall,” Jen said. “It’s been a difficult season.”
Which made Saturday’s victory that much sweeter.
“I was so happy for Ricky and his staff and our student-athletes who busted their (butts) since this summer to put themselves in this position and capitalize on it,” Selig said.
“A lot of coaches in Ricky’s shoes would have slept in on Sunday. But he’s in the office at 7:30 in the morning recruiting. That tells you that the DNA within the coaches in this program is that we’re not going to be satisfied with just a bowl game.
“They want more.”