By Jeremy Stafford -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- The Bridgewater Eagles are fast, they're experienced, and on offense, they're explosive.
After racking up 44 points in a win over Averett on Saturday, Bridgewater has shown it no longer resembles the team Shenandoah defeated 10-6 last year in the Hornets' first win over the Eagles since 1966.
"They're better, that's the one difference," SU defensive end Mo Salih said. "They're the same team they were last year, they pretty much do the same stuff they did last year, they just do it better. They've all grown up, everybody's older, they have a lot of returners coming back.
"They're more focused on like, 'You know what we're doing, and we still think we're going to be able to do it.'"
Specifically, Salih and the Shenandoah defense know they can expect a mouthful of Eagles tailback Teley Tate, a former Shenandoah running back, who rushed for 52 yards on only nine carries Saturday, and Skyline graduate Nat Jackson, who rushed for 51 yards. Quarterback Hagan Driskell threw for 151 yards. A year ago, the Hornets held the Eagles to 52 yards rushing.
The indisputable positive Salih has taken from Shenandoah's 21-3 win over Catholic on Saturday is that the Hornets defense -- which Salih and coach Paul Barnes both admit didn't play up to its potential -- held a Catholic team which averaged more than 30 points a game last year to a field goal this past weekend.
"Some guys played B-plus, B [games], Saturday, but the thing that's most important that I take away [as a] positive is that I didn't have to tell them -- they told us," Barnes said. "Before, guys were just happy that they played well. Now they know they can get better, and when they start evaluating themselves harder than we do, then you got a special type of kid."
Linebacker Joe Lunsford said that the Bridgewater defense can, at times, resemble the same spread attack the Hornets stifled at Catholic on Saturday.
"They run kinda the same formations here and there," Lunsford said. "They'll have a four wide receiver look, and [Driskell's] a great quarterback, too, and we're just gonna have to be gelling and everything."
Fortunately for Shenandoah, its four sophomore defensive backs held their own against Catholic, holding the pass-happy Cardinals to 105 yards through the air. Of course, the young secondary is expected to bring the same tenacity to Sprint Field at Shentel Stadium this Saturday. Although the Shenandoah offense proved capable of scoring this past weekend, Barnes certainly doesn't want to get into a shootout with a team that can put up 44 points.
"The biggest thing is not to read too much into it," Salih said.
"You just don't worry about what they did against Averett, and figure that if we do our job, and as long as everybody plays their assignment, as long as everybody does their job, we shouldn't have nothing to worry about.
"It doesn't matter how much they put on somebody else 'cause we feel we're better."
SPEED, SPEED, AND MORE SPEED: What stood out about the Bridgewater defense, perhaps more than anything else for Shenandoah quarterback Vern Lunsford, was how fast the Eagles swarm to the ball.
"Fast. Very fast on defense. Very, very fast," Lunsford repeated. "They blitz a lot, they show blitzes from all over, no specific tendencies, it's anybody at any time with different people.
"They like to be very aggressive. And they're experienced, everybody's returning."
According to Lunsford, the cornerback position is the only position for Bridgewater that doesn't boast a returning starter from last season.
"Their safeties and their linebackers are together again, D-line, so they know what they're doing," Lunsford said. "You can tell they're a year wiser, fast to the football, they pursue really well.
"It's gonna be a battle."
Shenandoah managed to take advantage of Bridgewater's aggressiveness last season when Lunsford hit fullback Anthony Cordero on a 51-yard play-action pass. Lunsford and the SU offense slashed Bridgewater for 260 total yards that day.
For Barnes, who said he wished his team had come "out of the gate better" at Catholic, this Saturday's game will come down to which team gets off to the better start.
"We have to play our A-game," Barnes said. "Again, we play our A-game, they play their A-game, it's gonna be a really good game. I think if [either] team plays less than their A-game, they're probably gonna get beat."
AN OLD FASHIONED NON-CONFERENCE SHOWDOWN: There's no question that Shenandoah's game against Bridgewater is a significant one. A Hornets win establishes them as 2-0 contender; a loss fells them to a 1-1 question mark.
And there's the unruly emotions which will surely flare up during the game, too. Bridgewater is sure to be bent on exacting revenge against a Shenandoah team that beat the Eagles last season, and Shenandoah is sure to be bent on proving that it will compete for the USA South crown this season.
But is the game season-defining? Certainly not.
"It's a big game, don't get me wrong, because it's playing your interstate rival," Barnes said. "But it's not like when you go into conference, when it's a winner- take-all situation. Like I explained to the team, yes we need to win this game. But if we don't win the game, we're all right.
"We go in the conference, we need to win the conference. We gotta win those games in conference."
Barnes did say, however, that Saturday's game, in being a rivalry game as well as Shenandoah's home opener, should provide an atmosphere similar to that of a conference game. Thus, win or lose, the experience can only help the Hornets further down the road.
"It's a big game, but it's not a winner-take-all type of situation," Barnes said. "It's big, but it's not the biggest thing we're gonna face."