By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah's debut football season as a member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference has been a rocky undertaking so far -- three conference games, three losses.
Now it's about to get tougher for the Hornets. At least, that's the way the ODAC coaches saw things when they anointed Hampden-Sydney as the preseason favorite in the preseason coaches' poll. Shenandoah was picked last, tied with Guilford, a team the Hornets have already played and lost to (20-7) on Oct. 6.
Shenandoah (1-5, 0-3 ODAC) has lost five straight since its season-opening 26-16 win at Stevenson on Sept. 1. Slowing down the high-flying Tigers in today's 1 p.m., matchup at Shentel Stadium is paramount if the Hornets hope to end that lengthening skid.
"We definitely have a good amount of respect for them, just like we do every opponent," Shenandoah senior linebacker John Ludden said. "But we treat every game the same. We respect every team, but we don't fear anybody."
Hampden-Sydney (4-2, 2-1) features a pro-style offense led by quarterback Nash Nance, a University of Tennessee transfer who is thriving in his first year with the Tigers. A sophomore, Nance leads the ODAC in passing yardage (1,501) and touchdowns (16). Not surprisingly, his favorite target -- sophomore wideout Holton Walker -- leads the conference in receiving (45 catches for 744 yards, 8 TDs).
For the third straight week, Shenandoah's pass defense is in for a challenge.
"As far as a secondary, we have to play a whole lot better than we have so far this season," Hornets junior cornerback Sean Blackman said. "Some of the offenses, I feel like we have dominated -- we did what we needed to do. We still need to have more turnovers. We still haven't really achieved that goal. We've had the opportunity and we've been in position to, but we just haven't done what we needed to do to get the turnover."
Turnovers would help an ailing offense which sits at the bottom of the conference in total offense. Sophomore quarterback Corey Taylor, who missed last week's game against Catholic with an injury, is probable to resume the starting role he assumed in Week 4. Phillip Gardner and Shawn Lloyd, last week's starter, have also seen time behind center this year. No matter who leads the offense, putting some points on the board early would be a big relief for the Hornets. Shenandoah ranks last in the ODAC in scoring at 11.3 points per game.
"That'd definitely be a good look for us," senior fullback P.J. Athey said. "If we just get that one series where everything just goes the way we want it to early in the game, then I think we'll be fine. The defense, I feel like they're on the field too much."
For the most part, the Hornets have excelled on that side of the ball. Led by an aggressive defensive line spearheaded by junior defensive end Evan Griffin (five sacks) and senior defensive tackle Nick Erdman (2.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss) the Hornets have only grudgingly surrendered yardage this season. Top tackler Jajuan Johnson (57 tackles) has added three sacks from his outside linebacker spot, but the Hornets are dinged up there as middle linebacker Josh Rogers (55 tackles) is doubtful with an elbow injury and fellow middle linebacker John Ludden (25 tackles) was considered questionable by Hornets coach Paul Barnes.
The Tigers have shown the ability both to sustain long drives or deliver a quick-strike touchdown this season.
"They've been able to do both, but I think they're a big-play team," Barnes said. "I think they try to take shots down the field to try to get huge yardage. Once they get it in [the red zone], they'll try and take it to you.
"... One thing about the ODAC -- teams execute at a high level. And if you don't execute at the high level, then you're going to get beat."
Defensively, Barnes said the Tigers have employed an eight-man front designed to bottle up the run. It's not an uncommon strategy in the pass-happy ODAC.
In last week's 34-7 loss to Catholic, the Hornets did show some signs of life on offense. Running back Carl Joseph tallied 88 rushing yards, while top receiver Qiydaar Murphy hauled in three passes for 56 yards and a late touchdown from Lloyd. It could have been much more, if not for a dropped pass or two, a slight overthrow here and there, a missed assignment once or twice.
"I know it's there," Barnes said. "I can't wait to put it all together and have everybody go, 'Wow, where's that been?' It's a work in progress."
Ludden, for one, is hoping that progress starts translating into tangible victories on the field.
"We've lost a lot of close games and a lot of games we should've won," Ludden said. "I love winning -- I mean, everybody loves winning. It's definitely frustrating to not get the result that you're working for every day in practice. But I don't think anybody's feeling sorry for themselves or looking back and having regrets.
"We still love the game. We still want to win every week. But there's no question, it is frustrating."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>