By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
BRIDGEWATER -- Willie Logan proved just as adept at passing out compliments as he was passing for touchdowns on Saturday.
Having just finished off a hard-hitting 17-14 victory over Old Dominion Athletic Conference newcomer Shenandoah at Jopson Field, Bridgewater's junior starting quarterback had plenty of nice things to say about the Hornets afterward.
"I haven't been hit like this in a long time, man," Logan said. "They have a pretty bright season ahead of them if they're defense keeps playing the way they have been."
On Saturday, that defense merely helped Shenandoah (1-3, 0-1 ODAC) to another near-miss victory in their ODAC football debut. Like previous close losses at home to Ferrum and Christopher Newport, another rock-solid defensive effort and strong special teams play wasn't enough to lock down a victory.
"It's frustrating, but they played hard," Shenandoah head coach Paul Barnes said. "We had our chance. We stuck to our game plan that we wanted. We kept it close. We wanted to try to win it in the fourth. We had our opportunities and we didn't capitalize."
Behind sophomore Corey Taylor -- making his first career collegiate start at quarterback -- the Hornets generated little momentum on offense in the first two quarters. Taylor, the Hornets' third starting quarterback this season (joining Philip Gardner and Shawn Lloyd) connected on 4 of 9 passes for 37 yards in the first half, providing little relief to a Hornets' running game effectively bottled up by Bridgewater's defense.
The Eagles fared little better early, but grabbed a 7-0 lead with 4:45 left in the first quarter with a fourth-down gamble. Facing a fourth-and-7 from the Shenandoah 27-yard line, Logan spied Tyler Moneymaker wide open about 15 yards downfield. Moneymaker, who was running a curl route, made the catch and went untouched the rest of the way for a 27-yard touchdown.
"I think every coach likes those players that make you look smarter than you probably are," Bridgewater coach Michael Clark said. "... We're just trying to get 10 yards on fourth-and-7 and it turned into 20-something."
The Hornets' biggest offensive play in the first half came from what has become a predictable source -- a fake punt turned pass play netted a 32-yard gain when punter Cory Gay hit Sean Blackman for a 32-yard completion. The fake punt was the Hornets' fifth in four games, and Shenandoah is 5-for-5 on attempts.
"We got snookered on that because the guy ran off and stopped -- I guess technically, it's legal -- our kid thought he was running off the field," Clark said. "That's one of those where the only chance there would have been to have picked it up from the press box or called timeout. Just give them credit -- we worked on their other four fakes that they didn't use."
That fake punt kept a first-quarter drive alive for Shenandoah, but just for awhile.
Although largely unproductive in terms of offensive numbers, that first-half experience seemed to settle the Hornets' Taylor for the final two quarters. Suspended for the first three games this season for an unspecified violation of team rules, Taylor was eager to prove himself Saturday.
He began that process in earnest on SU's first offensive possession of the second half, orchestrating a 10-play, 77-yard scoring drive capped by his 14-yard touchdown run with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
"I was waiting for this game," Taylor said. "I just wanted to prove stuff, show I could be a leader, show what I could do."
Bridgewater (3-0, 1-0) came right back by capitalizing on a rare mistake by the Hornets' defense. Logan threaded a pass across the middle to Shawn Lee on third-and-18, and Lee broke free for a 63-yard touchdown run after SU's Phillip Schoeffel aggressively went for the interception and came up empty.
Logan got a reprieve on that near-pick, but didn't get so lucky late in the third quarter when he tried to connect with Jayme Perry on a sideline comeback route. Shenandoah's Brandon Martin stepped in front of Perry for the interception and returned it 38 yards to the Eagles' 3 before Logan forced him out of bounds. Two plays later, Taylor's 1-yard touchdown run evened the score again.
"I just kind of baited him a little bit and waited for him to throw it, and just took my opportunity," Martin said of his team-high fourth interception.
The Eagles' special teams provided the biggest plays in the fourth quarter, as Antonn Briley's 23-yard punt return set up Bridgewater at the SU 25 with 11:25 to play. Shenandoah's defense stiffened, but John Griggs nailed a 33-yard field goal that eventually proved the game-winner with 8:47 to play.
The Hornets got three more possessions after that, but never again got within field goal range.
"A lot of it was we just didn't play as physical as we can play," Shenandoah senior center Chris Lewis said. "We made some good plays, but we just didn't have enough sustainable drives."
With each team effectively barred from running the ball -- both Bridgewater and Shenandoah tallied 55 rushing yards apiece -- the game came down to that handful of big pass plays. The Eagles tallied 121 of their 261 passing yards on three plays.
Afterward, Logan had his words of praise for the Hornets.
"They'll hit ya and give you a very good ballgame, and that's what the ODAC's about," Logan said. "The ODAC's also about trying to find ways to win every game. It doesn't matter how you have to do it; you just have to find a way to win."