By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Christopher Newport University head football coach Matt Kelchner approached this past week of practice determined to prod the Captains into making something happen on the defensive side of the ball.
In Christopher Newport's first two games this season, both losses to top-20 programs, the Captains had forced zero turnovers against Salisbury and Hampden-Sydney. Kelchner figured a little focus in that area might benefit his team heading into Saturday's game against erstwhile USA South Conference rival Shenandoah.
"We really, really focused this week on turnovers, attacking the football when it was in the air and trying to strip balls for fumbles," Kelchner said.
Kelchner can consider that time well spent after his team forced Shenandoah into six turnovers as the Captains picked up a 20-7 road victory on Saturday night.
"You can't turn it over six times and win," Shenandoah head coach Paul Barnes said. "If you turn it over three or more times to the other team, then you shouldn't win the game."
Two of the Captains' touchdowns were aided by those turnovers, including a devastating interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter. On a second-and-8 play from the SU 45-yard line, Hornets quarterback Shawn Lloyd tried to connect with wideout Calvin Wright on the left sideline. Lloyd locked onto his receiver as the Captains' Michael Ruckman rapidly closed in on the intended target. Ruckman neatly stepped in front to snatch the ball and raced 47 yards for a touchdown with 2:23 to go in the third.
"It felt like a dream," said Ruckman of his first career touchdown. "I caught the ball, and I couldn't believe it. So I just took off as fast as I could."
The Hornets' best opportunity to get back into the game came on their next drive, when Byron Mitchell's 29-yard kickoff return put the Hornets on their own 37. That drive ended six plays later when Chad Cieslewicz picked off Lloyd's pass at the Captains' 30.
Lloyd, who came on late in the second quarter when starting quarterback Philip Gardner left with an injury, had a tough day under center as he completed just 6 of 20 passes for 33 yards and three interceptions.
"They got me twice," Lloyd said. "The first time they got me with the interception, they had rolled down in my cadence. At that point, I just have pulled out and rechecked my play. I figured to stay with it, and I just made the mental mistake of keying on one receiver instead of actually reading it out. I gave him a highlight.
"... On the second one, the safety, I didn't see him. He just made a good play."
The loss spoiled another solid defensive effort by Shenandoah (1-2), who largely held in check Christopher Newport's dangerous running game. The Captains managed just 71 rushing yards while passing for 142, but did strike first on the ground with help from a Shenandoah turnover after the Captains' Kendal Rivers fell on a Gardner fumble at the Hornets' 22 with 1:39 left in the first quarter. CNU's Marcus Morrast capped the ensuing four-play drive with a 7-yard touchdown run to put the Captains up early.
The Captains pushed that lead to 13-0 after Aaron Edwards hit Chris Coiner with a 6-yard touchdown pass with 5:59 left in the first half, but the Hornets finally broke through on their next drive.
Freshman Andrew Smith slipped through a gap and followed a devastating downfield block by Matthew Bounds on the way to a 47-yard touchdown run.
That proved the highlight of an otherwise dismal day for Shenandoah's offense. The Hornets did pick up 139 rushing yards with Smith leading the way with 72, but the offense was held to just 193 yards total.
"We just weren't in sync," Smith said. "The first half, it looked like we had it. But once we came out in the second half, I don't think we had it anymore."
The absence of injured wide receivers Adam Tibbs and Troy Baldwin forced the Hornets to use less experienced options there, leading to several drops and dangerous tipped balls. Gardner, who threw a pick of his own in addition to the fumble, is "day-to-day" according to Barnes.
"It's what we didn't do that really counts," Barnes said. "We didn't execute the way we wanted to on offense. We had some nice drives, and then we didn't capitalize on them and we turned the ball over."
Shenandoah junior linebacker Josh Rogers, one of the bright spots on defense with 10 tackles (including two for loss), isn't about to start pointing a finger at the offense.
"We're not frustrated at all," Rogers said. "We played our heart out. We know that they're still trying to get their name and their identity and all that stuff. We're a hundred percent behind them."