By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- The preseason goals -- those best-case, conference winning, undefeated season dreams and declarations shared by all teams everywhere -- seemed so very far away for Shenandoah University's football team on Saturday at Shentel Stadium.
After losing a 20-7 decision to visiting Old Dominion Athletic Conference foe Guilford, the Hornets saw their season record fall to 1-4 overall and 0-2 in the ODAC. This defeat, on SU's homecoming day, was all the more difficult considering the Quakers' own struggles so far this season. Guilford and conference newcomer Shenandoah had tied for last place in the ODAC preseason coaches' poll, but the Quakers left the Hornets all alone in the cellar Saturday.
"I don't think there's much tweaking to do anymore -- we're playing for pride now," Shenandoah senior wide receiver Qiydaar Murphy said. "We're not really playing to win the ODAC anymore. We're playing so that we don't go 1-9. At the end of the day, with every loss that comes, your goal just shortens a little bit."
Against Guilford (2-3, 1-1 ODAC), the Hornets had hoped to reverse their season-long struggles on offense. On the game's first play, it seemed Shenandoah (1-4, 0-2 ODAC) was headed in the right direction when quarterback Corey Taylor found Murphy in single coverage for a 54-yard completion down the left sideline that put the Hornets at the Guilford 8. Three running plays lost three yards, and the Hornets opted to try a fake field goal that only netted two yards on holder Cory Gay's shovel pass to Sean Blackman before Guilford's Donte' Mitchell made the tackle.
The Hornets kept that early pressure on as Evan Griffin's sack of Quakers freshman quarterback Matt Pawlowski forced Guilford to punt from its own eight. The Hornets' subsequent drive stalled at the Quakers' 13-yard-line, and SU kicker Andrew Williams' 30-yard field goal try sailed wide left.
The Quakers broke through with 7:31 left in the first half on Tyler Hunt's 30-yard field goal, but Byron Mitchell's 3-yard kickoff return plus a 15-yard personal foul penalty on SU's ensuing drive gave the Hornets prime field position at the Guilford 46. The Hornets appeared to cash in when Taylor connected with running back Carl Joseph on a 26-yard touchdown pass, but Murphy was flagged for an illegal block to wipe out the score, the Hornets were called for a delay of game on the next play, and Taylor's pass on third-and-8 from the Guilford 23 was picked off by Satiir Stevenson to snuff the threat.
"You've got to come away with points there," Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes said. "They did, we didn't. And we need to execute better. The things that we called were there. We just didn't do it -- bottom line, we just didn't get it done."
The Quakers extended their lead with a six-play, 70-yard drive that took less than a minute late in the second quarter. Pawlowski's 13-yard scoring strike to Trey Billian put Guilford up by 10 points heading into halftime.
Shenandoah continued to sputter in the third quarter. Meanwhile, Hunt's 33-yard field goal with 7:00 left in the third extended Guilford's lead to 13 points. Early in the fourth quarter, the Quakers delivered a knockout blow by exploiting the Hornets' coverage with a mismatch of Billian against linebacker Josh Rogers in single coverage. Pawlowski (15 for 28 passing, 223 yards, 2 TDs) found Billian on a slant, and the 6-foot-2 senior turned it upfield for a 79-yard touchdown play that effectively put the game out of reach.
Guilford coach Chris Rusiewicz said the play was a simple adjustment to counter SU's tendency to grab his receivers in coverage.
"[We] weren't getting that call, so we took advantage," Rusiewicz said. "This time instead of taking them into the flats and getting a hold, we took advantage to run a slant instead and took them vertical and run by the linebacker this time. It worked out for us."
The Hornets did get on the scoreboard with 2:10 to play as Taylor managed to slip a heavy rush and find Rigo Salguero in the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown pass.
It was a great play, but the Hornets could have used a few more of them. Taylor, making his second start of the season, was 11 for 24 passing for 124 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
"I saw everything we practiced," Taylor said. "Coach put us in the right positions. We've just got to come out ready and not be the second-half team every time. We've got to be a first-quarter team."
Defensively, the Hornets wasted another strong effort. But while the Hornets did get consistent pressure on Pawlowski by exploiting the Quakers' inexperienced offensive line, Shenandoah didn't force any turnovers.
"That was big. We really were down about that at the end of the game," said Shenandoah senior linebacker JuJuan Johnson, who tallied three sacks. "We didn't really have any turnovers, a lot of big hits -- nothing."
The Hornets managed just 80 yards rushing on 40 attempts against Guilford, which had been struggling to stop the run this season.
"I think they were setting the edge well outside, keeping us from getting out there," Barnes said. "We struggled with our blocking on the edge out there and they turned everything in. We've just got to get better at it."
The Hornets don't have long to dwell on their fourth straight loss. Shenandoah is back in action on Friday night when they visit ODAC foe Catholic in Washington, D.C., for a rare night matchup. Game time is 7 p.m.
"I think we've just got to play loose and just know that we can win a game," Barnes said. "It's a confidence thing, and that's basically not being robotic."
Contact Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137, or firstname.lastname@example.org