In the brief history of the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl, it has quickly and unexpectedly risen into one of the most enjoyable, breakneck-paced games of the entire bowl season. Maybe it's something about playing near the sandy, sun-splashed beaches of Nassau that bring out the best offenses (or worst defenses), but in the game's previous two matchups, teams had combined to average 86.5 points per game.
In other words, the Old Dominion Monarchs and the Eastern Michigan Eagles had a lot to live up to when they took the field at Thomas Robinson Stadium on Friday afternoon. The two programs certainly continued the tradition of providing a high entertainment value, even if they couldn't quite replicate the scoring binge fans witnessed the last two years.
Old Dominion broke a fourth-quarter tie to edge Eastern Michigan 24-20 for the Monarchs' first bowl victory since joining the FBS. ODU quarterback David Washington's 5-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jonathan Duhart proved to be the game winner. But the fact either team qualified to participate in the game represented something of a victory, given where the programs have come from in recent years.
Eastern Michigan's appearance was noteworthy because it snapped the second-longest bowl drought in the FBS. The Eagles had not appeared in the postseason since the 1987 California Bowl. EMU coach Chris Creighton led a remarkable turnaround in his third season, after his team finished a combined 3-21 the previous two seasons and a combined 1-15 in the Mid-American Conference. Eastern Michigan entered the postseason tied with three other teams for the best win improvement (plus-6) over last season, joining Colorado, Wyoming and Central Florida.
Two years ago, while Eastern Michigan was in the midst of a 2-10 season, athletic director Heather Lyke began helping football players secure passports in the event the team qualified for the Bahamas Bowl, which takes a MAC team each season. That faith was rewarded as the Eagles (7-6) won seven games this season for the first time since 1989.
Meanwhile, Old Dominion (10-3) had not participated in a bowl game since the Monarchs transitioned to the FBS beginning in 2013. ODU finished 8-4 in 2013 and 6-6 in 2014 but was ineligible for the postseason as part of its two-year transition. Old Dominion had a chance to reach a bowl game last season but lost its regular-season finale by two points to Florida Atlantic.
On Friday, Old Dominion led 10-0 at halftime, with the lone touchdown coming on Washington's 47-yard pass to wide receiver Zach Pascal with 7:59 remaining in the second quarter. But the teams accounted for three touchdowns in the span of 4 minutes, 39 seconds of game clock during the third quarter. Eastern Michigan receiver Sergio Bailey caught two touchdown passes from quarterback Brogan Roback, and Eagles kicker Paul Fricano tied the score at 17-17 on a 24-yard third-quarter field goal.
After ODU pried the lead back, it took possession with 5:13 remaining and salted the game away on the ground. Monarchs running back Ray Lawry, who finished with 133 rushing yards, was named the offensive MVP of the game.
Oddly enough, Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan met Friday for the third time in the last three seasons. ODU defeated Eastern Michigan 17-3 in 2014 and 38-34 in 2015 during the regular season. The Monarchs made it a perfect 3-for-3 in their most significant performance as an FBS program.
Afterward, eighth-year Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder called the victory "a dream come true."
"It is an unbelievable team effort," he said, "and this is one of the best days of my life."