By Jeff Nations - firstname.lastname@example.org
The whirlwind has slackened to a steady breeze for Shenandoah University sophomore Corey Taylor.
Two weeks ago, Taylor took the field as a first-time starter at quarterback against Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Bridgewater. Eligible for the first time this season after sitting out the first three games for an unspecified violation of team rules, Taylor wasn't even certain he would be the starter until that morning against the Eagles.
Taylor has no such uncertainty to face today against Guilford at Shentel Stadium. Taylor is the Hornets' starting quarterback -- no question about it.
"Right now I think Corey is starting to separate himself," Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes said. "I think you saw a young man maturing in the second half at Bridgewater."
After struggling to lead the offense in the first two quarters against the Eagles, Taylor did flash the type of athleticism that may well add another dimension to Shenandoah's struggling offense. He rushed for a pair of touchdowns, plus showed a strong and accurate passing arm (9 for 16 passing for 125 yards) while sparking the Hornets to a second-half comeback that came up short in the 17-14 loss.
Shenandoah (1-3, 0-1 ODAC) hopes to see an even better version of Taylor and the rest of the offense after a bye week following the Bridgewater game. That gave Barnes plenty of time to pit his offense against a seasoned defense that has carried Shenandoah all season.
"It came at a good time," Barnes said. "I'm not saying we couldn't play that bye week, but what happened was we were able to improve. The offense went against the defense every day for a long period of time -- in a two-hour practice, we probably went at them for an hour and 20 minutes.
"I think what happens is when you face that defense, either you're gonna do it or you're gonna crack. And it started molding the offense closer together."
Getting Taylor comfortable behind center as the starter was the most important step in that progression. The Hornets have used three different starters at quarterback in four games, with Taylor the latest -- and last, hopefully.
"He really responded -- I thought he got better, and if he gets better at the quarterback position then we're going to get better offensively," Barnes said. "We had to do it, and we did it, and we're pretty happy with it."
Top wide receiver Qiydaar Murphy is back after missing the Bridgewater game, and fellow wideout Adam Tibbs is close to 100 percent now to give the Hornets' passing game a boost.
Taylor said the extra practice time has helped him settle into running the offense without overthinking his every action.
"Going into Bridgewater, I knew what I was supposed to do, but it's your first time playing ... you don't want to make all the checks because you don't want to mess up. This week and that bye week gave me time to learn the checks better, so now I feel a lot more comfortable with it."
He could feel some pressure from Guilford (1-3, 0-1 ODAC), a team Barnes said isn't at all afraid to gamble with extra blitz pressure. That comes with a price -- the Quakers are allowing 25 points and 349.2 yards per game this season. That's nearly 100 more yards of total offense than the Hornets have averaged through four games.
Freshman quarterback Matt Pawlowski leads the Quakers' pass-heavy offense. He's completed 85 of 143 passes for 842 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions. Pawlowski was the ODAC Player of the Week following Guilford's 45-35 win over Averett on Sept. 15.
"They've got a good quarterback, he's pretty athletic and can make plays. Four, sometimes five wideouts and they like to sling it," Barnes said. "Anytime you've got a team that can sling it, they're going to be in the game."
The first-ever meeting with the Quakers also offers Shenandoah's secondary perhaps its biggest test this season. The Hornets have four interceptions and numerous pass breakups, but have also been victimized at times through the air.
"We feel like we're a very talented defense, and we think we can do the big things that most people don't expect a defense to do," Hornets junior free safety Byron Mitchell said. "I think where we can improve together on the defense is taking advantage of our opportunities. I personally have had a couple of dropped interceptions that could've turned into a pick six -- definitely in the [Christopher Newport] game, that could've been a game-changer."
Barnes wants to see consistent pressure on Pawlowski, and he wants it to come from his four-man defensive line. Guilford is averaging 225 passing yards per game, but also gains a respectable 124.2 yards rushing per contest.
"I think we've got to continue making the one-dimensional," Barnes said. "I think stopping the run is very critical [against] them, because when they do run the ball they do get some big plays. It's like they lull you to sleep passing it."