By Jeff Nations
It's almost like Byron Mitchell is roaming the hallways at Tallwood High School once more.
Mitchell, now the junior starting free safety for Shenandoah University's football team, can't help but reminisce a bit as he prepares for tonight's road matchup against Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Catholic.
After all, Mitchell hasn't played under the Friday night lights since those high school days.
"You're always anxious to get out there, just to get the day over with and go ahead and get on the field," Mitchell said. "You wake up in the morning, put the jersey on and wear it around school all day -- it's a good feeling."
Mitchell and his teammates won't be wearing their jerseys on campus today -- a true fashion faux pas for collegians -- but the anxious feelings are sure to return. It's not just the first Friday night game for Mitchell, but for anyone ever suiting up for Shenandoah's football team.
Maybe that shakeup in the routine will have a beneficial effect for the Hornets, who have dropped four straight since a season-opening road victory at Stevenson. Shenandoah is still looking for it's first win in the ODAC after losing at Bridgewater on Sept. 22 and last week at home to Guilford.
Hornets junior linebacker Josh Rogers is certainly ready for the change of pace.
"It's been three years since I played on Friday night," Rogers said. "Hopefully I can go back to my old roots, fly around like I was young again."
Rogers needn't worry about that -- he, along with the rest of the Hornets' defense, has been the strength of the team all season. Shenandoah ranks second in the ODAC in scoring defense and total defense, allowing only 17.4 points and 298.2 yards per game.
The trouble has been on the other side of the ball -- the Hornets currently sit dead last in the conference in scoring offense (12.2 points per game) and total offense (242.8 yards per game). The Hornets, who have used three different starting quarterbacks already this season, have shown some flashes of play-making ability but Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes is looking for a lot more consistency on offense.
Part of the problem has been that instability at quarterback, and a negative turnover differential (-5) has sapped offensive possessions while often burdening the defense with challenging field position.
"Certain things are going to get fixed right away, certain things are going to take time to get fixed," Barnes said. "That's where we are right now. There's not a quick fix in there, and you don't want a quick fix in the sense of what we're trying to establish."
The Hornets have their pick of quarterbacks. Week one starter Phillip Gardner is back from injury, Shawn Lloyd has two starts and sophomore Corey Taylor led the offense the past two games for the Hornets.
Catholic (2-3, 1-1 ODAC) is a bit more stable in that key position, as senior quarterback Greg Cordivari (93 for 164 passing for 913 yards, 10 TDs) has plenty of experience running the Cardinals' spread attack. His favorite target is senior wide receiver Alonzo Cooke (27 catches, 357 yards, 4 TDs). It's a similar look to what Shenandoah faced in the 20-7 loss to Guilford. Catholic is coming off a 45-12 drubbing at Randolph-Macon, but stunned preseason ODAC favorite Hampden-Sydney, 41-28, on Sept. 29.
"Pretty much the same style as Guilford, but the quarterback will stay in the pocket more," Rogers said. "He's not really like how [Guilford quarterback Matt Pawlowski] was, as soon as he saw pressure he just ran out of the pocket. So it should be easier on us to stay on our coverage."
Mitchell is looking forward to another shot at a pass-happy offense. Although the Hornets largely held Guilford's passing game in check last week, the Quakers did strike for a back-breaking 79-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. The Hornets harried
"You don't even have to watch a lot of film of this team to know what they're gonna do -- they're gonna pass the ball, pass the ball, pass the ball," Mitchell said. "If they run the ball, honestly I feel sorry for them because our run defense is pretty good right now. I have lot of faith that our D-line and our linebackers are going to get it done. But this week I think the secondary has a lot to prove."
Barnes said the Cardinals have not hesitated to load the box to stop the run when necessary, a likely scenario unless the Hornets can open up a passing game which has mostly sputtered this year. Top receiving threat Qiydaar Murphy, who has missed some time due to injury, has just 12 catches for 150 yards and a touchdown this year. The passing game's struggles have spread to the running game, as the Hornets have averaged just 3.2 yards per carry this year.
Catholic holds a 6-2 advantage in the all-time series, including a 16-13 victory the last meeting in 2010.
"It's going to be a battle," Barnes said. "Every game we have ever played with them has been a battle. It's been down to the wire or whatever, and I'm assuming it's going to be like that Friday night."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>