By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
Shenandoah University's Byron Mitchell has been around long enough to hear the talk, how the Old Dominion Athletic Conference is a big step up from the USA South.
The junior free safety needn't listen to such idle banter, which has only increased since the Hornets' move to the ODAC starting this season became official. Mitchell has seen his share of ODAC opponents already, including multiple games against today's opponent Bridgewater. As such, Mitchell has a pretty good idea of where the Hornets have been, and what they can expect in the future starting with today's 1 p.m., contest at Bridgewater's Jopson Field.
"Honestly, I believe it's a major leap," Mitchell said. "We played Randolph-Macon, Bridgewater and scrimmaged against Washington & Lee for the past couple of years in non-conference, so going up against them I could tell the difference in the competitiveness in those teams compared to the USA South schools. From top to bottom, I honestly believe that the ODAC is a much tougher conference than the USA South is now."
Shenandoah (1-2) is coming off back-to-back losses to its former USA South rivals Ferrum and Christopher Newport, which doesn't bode well for today's ODAC debut. That can be deceiving, though -- those two USA South schools have long represented the best of the conference, and as such may have done the Hornets a favor with a non-conference primer on playing tough opponents.
The Eagles certainly have been tough on SU over the years, holding a 12-2 advantage in the all-time series including a 11-1 mark since Shenandoah revived its football program in 2000. Bridgewater (2-0) is coming off a bye week after opening the season with wins at St. Vincent (23-7) and at home against the USA South's Greensboro (33-7).
Despite the lopsided advantage in the all-time series, the Eagles have often had memorable battles with the Hornets. Last year's 28-23 win was a prime example, as the two squads engaged in an offensive shootout that came close to producing a combined 800 yards in total offense.
Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes, likely to be confined to the press box again this week as he recovers from back surgery, said this year's edition of the Eagles is similar to many past Mike Clark-coached teams.
"They're a downhill-running football team," Barnes said. "They have a nice, simple passing attack -- a quarterback-friendly passing attack. Defensively, they're a 4-2 -- they're very fast defensively, they like fast guys on defense [and] they tackle well."
On offense, quarterback Willie Logan has passed for 213 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Running back Jacob Wright has gained 207 rushing yards to lead the Eagles.
Shenandoah will be without starting quarterback Phillip Gardner, who injured his shoulder in last week's 20-7 loss to Christopher Newport. Shawn Lloyd, who has started one game this year and seen extensive action in all three, is slated to start. Last week Lloyd struggled against the Captains, throwing three of SU's four interceptions. The Hornets committed six turnovers in all, upping their total this season to 12. Sophomore Corey Taylor, coming off a three-game suspension for a violation of team rules, could also see action at quarterback.
Defensively, Shenandoah has allowed just 50 points (16.7 per game) and an average of 286 yards of total offense. The Hornets will need another strong effort today.
"Our goal this year, right from the beginning of the season, was a 16-point average," Mitchell said. "I think that so far this season, we've been at that average despite the 20 points scored by CNU. [Special teams coordinator Kalvin Oliver] said it himself, that this defense this year is probably the best defense to come through Shenandoah, ever. We're really high off that and we're really building off each other each and every day."
Senior Qiydaar Murphy, SU's leading receiver so far with 10 catches and a touchdown, said facing Bridgewater in the ODAC opener might be a benefit, but just a slight one.
"I don't really think that it matters either way," Murphy said. "Ultimately, the goal is to win. It being Bridgewater, it makes a little bit of a difference because we're familiar with the team. But at the same time, even if it were a different school we've never played before it wouldn't matter. We just want to win."
Barnes is banking on the Hornets acquitting themselves well today against their new conference rival.
"It's important, we know it's important. But every time we take the field against them, it's important," Barnes said. "We've just got to get ready. Do you want to make a good showing? Yes. And I think we'll be ready for the challenge."