By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- The signs were encouraging for Shenandoah University's struggling offense last week against Hampden-Sydney.
With sophomore quarterback Corey Taylor looking more comfortable with each passing week as the starter, the Hornets had their most productive day on offense since a season-opening victory at Stevenson on Sept. 1. The Hornets generated 313 yards of total offense and three touchdowns -- unfortunately, Hampden-Sydney was even better in the 42-21 loss.
The Hornets will try to keep that positive momentum on offense going in today's 1 p.m., contest against Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Randolph-Macon. It will mark the Hornets' final home game at Shentel Stadium this season, and the last chance for Shenandoah to pick up a victory on its home field before closing out the season with two road games.
"I see us growing, and I think everybody else is starting to believe that," said Taylor, one of three quarterbacks to start for the Hornets this season. "I think that's what showed on Saturday."
Shenandoah (1-6, 0-4 ODAC) will need another decent showing from the offense to keep Randolph-Macon off the field today. The Yellow Jackets' ball-control offense is capable of slicing chunks of time off the clock, a fact Hornets coach Paul Barnes knows all too well. It will be the fourth straight season the Hornets have faced Randolph-Macon (4-3, 2-2 ODAC) and Shenandoah is looking to snap a three-game losing streak in the series.
"Every possession is important, but in this situation it's extremely important," Barnes said. "They might take five, six minutes off the clock. If [we] take five minutes off the clock, that doesn't leave much time left in that quarter."
Keeping an eye on Yellow Jackets starting quarterback Zac Naccarato in red-zone situations might also be a good idea. In last season's 36-29 win over the Hornets, Naccarato had three rushing touchdowns -- all from inside the 10-yard line.
Naccarato has four rushing touchdowns this year, but he's been more of a threat as a passer this season with 1,337 passing yards and 12 touchdowns with only three interceptions. That's given Randolph-Macon surprising balance on offense, but the Hornets aren't buying it.
"They're going to try and pound the rock on us, they run the ball downhill a lot," Shenandoah freshman defensive end Jake Payne said. "I wouldn't say they're fast off the ball, but they're big and strong."
Will McGhee (747 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Drake Sanders (409, 2 TDs) pace the Yellow Jackets' ground attack. Payne expects the Hornets' defensive line, which has helped the Hornets rank second in the ODAC in rushing defense, to face its biggest test yet.
"I think definitely this game, stopping the run is going to come down to the defensive line doing their job and not getting beat off the ball," Payne said, "driving the offensive line back and setting up our linebackers to make tackles."
Despite the improved production last week, Shenandoah's offense still ranks last -- by a wide margin -- in the ODAC in scoring at 12.7 points per game. Taylor knows the Hornets need to do a much better job at sustaining drives, especially against a ball-control team like the Yellow Jackets.
"Coming into this week, I think we need to make every possession count and get points on the board," Taylor said. "Whether it's a field goal or a touchdown, we need to get points on the board."
Randolph-Macon has had its troubles defending the run this season, ranking last in the conference in rushing defense (195.9 yards allowed per game) and also rates last in the ODAC in total defense (395.3 yards per game).
"They have a good front eight and we've just got to attack it," Barnes said. "They try to stop the run and make you throw."
Still looking for that first conference win in their inaugural season in the ODAC, the Hornets expect few surprises from the familiar Yellow Jackets. That works both ways, of course.
"We know what they're about," Barnes said. " ... We have a feel of what they like to do in situations, and they know what we like to do.
"I'm looking forward to [today] to see how much more improvement we can make because I thought we made great strides in the last two or three weeks."
Contact sports editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137, or email@example.com