Monarchs’ Blake LaRussa plays bigger than his stature
HUNTINGTON — Old Dominion University quarterback Blake LaRussa does not look physically imposing on a football field.
LaRussa is listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, which makes him one of the smallest starting quarterbacks in FBS.
Make no mistake, though. The junior from Virginia Beach, Virginia, has big-time game and has ignited the Monarchs’ offense since taking over three games ago.
Oh, and the first game of that surge? It just so happened to be a 49-35 win over No. 13 Virginia Tech when he threw for 495 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for another score.
That was plenty enough to grab the attention of Marshall University players before a 3:30 p.m. Saturday meeting between the Thundering Herd (3-2, 1-1 Conference USA) and Monarchs (1-5, 0-3) at Foreman Field in Norfolk, Virginia.
“He was throwing lights out against Virginia Tech,” Marshall defensive back Nazeeh Johnson said. “He’s a really good quarterback and they’ve got really good wide receivers. He throws it and the wide receivers are making plays.”
Old Dominion’s play has improved since LaRussa took over on the second series of the Virginia Tech game.
In the first three games of the season the Monarchs were blown out
by Liberty, beaten by FIU and lost at Charlotte in a close battle. Since LaRussa’s insertion, they have the win over the Hokies, a hard-luck loss to East Carolina and a competitive setback to Florida Atlantic.
LaRussa put up monster numbers in the last three games, throwing for 1,135 yards and eight touchdowns while the Old Dominion offense averaged 39 points — more than double the 18 points per game they put up in the first three losses.
Marshall defensive coordinator Adam Fuller said one of LaRussa’s strengths is his ability to make several throws while also using his football I.Q. to get the ball out quickly and minimize risk.
“Some of the balls are out quick — combinations — and some are just three-step drop and throwing deep shots down the field,” Fuller said. “He does a good job of finding checkdowns to the back and he’s not going to hold the ball very long. There are some deeper combinations that gives you a chance to load up and bring pressure.”
The key for Marshall is to use its strong defensive front to get pressure on LaRussa, containing him within the pocket while getting push to have it collapse around him.
LaRussa has shown that he won’t fold under pressure or contact despite his size.
In the 37-35 loss to East Carolina, LaRussa was sacked nine times, but still managed to put the Monarchs in position to win with a fourth-quarter scoring pass to Isaiah Harper before things slipped away as the Pirates got a pair of late scores.
Protection has been a bugaboo for Old Dominion, which has allowed 17 sacks on the season.
Considering Ma rsha ll’s defensive line is a strength the focus is not only getting contact consistently on LaRussa, but also getting hands up in throwing lanes to deflect passes when they can’t reach the quarterback.
The Herd features three defensive tackles who are 6-5 or taller bigger in Channing Hames, Malik Thompson and Ryan Bee.
“Malik and I are both 6-5, 6-6,” Bee said. “We have to start getting our hands up and deflecting the passes into the middle like we should’ve done last week. It’s one of those things that we’ve got to work on and take it into this coming week.”
For LaRussa, there might be a little extra juice going up against Marshall, as well, because of fond memories he has of playing the Herd. As a freshman, LaRussa’s first collegiate touchdown and only touchdown of the 2016 season came on a 1-yard plunge late in the fourth quarter against Marshall. The touchdown put the icing on a 38-14 blowout win for the Monarchs that made them bowl eligible for the first time in school history.
This week, LaRussa again looks to make a big impact for Old Dominion’s offense in a conference battle.
MARSHALL (3-2, 1-1 C-USA) AT ODU (1-5, 0-3 C-USA)
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Foreman Field Norfolk, Va. TV: Stadium
RADIO: WDGG 93.7-FM, ESPN 94.1-FM and 930-AM