By Jeff Nations
WINCHESTER -- No secrets, not this week.
Although Shenandoah University has never officially met Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Washington and Lee on the football field in a regular-season game, the Generals are far from a mystery to many of the Hornets.
Hornets senior center Chris Lewis is among that group, having faced off against the Generals three straight years in preseason scrimmages. Those games left a lasting impression.
"They've always played us tough -- hard, fast and physical," Lewis said. "It's going to be a great game."
Shenandoah (1-9, 0-6 ODAC) is still searching for its first win as a member of the ODAC and must knock off the defending conference champion today to make that happen. Washington and Lee (7-2, 5-1 ODAC) is on pace to defend that title, too, and the Hornets are standing in their way. Facing the Generals' potent triple-option attack, Shenandoah's defense must make certain it is standing in the right place, at the right time -- disciplined, lane-assignment football.
Junior linebacker Josh Rogers said the Hornets have adjusted somewhat for their first matchup against a full-on triple option this season -- Shenandoah saw some triple-option plays against former USA South Conference rival Ferrum, and has experience facing the offense from past years when that school ran it exclusively. Rogers said he may shift to outside linebacker, with leading tackler Jujuan Johnson and Michael Messick manning the inside.
"It's nothing special," Rogers said. "We're not really changing anything up -- it's just the same 'ole base defense. Everybody has their own assignment to do."
The Generals boast the ODAC's top offense this season, chewing up opponents to the tune of 461.4 yards per game. Most of that yardage, not surprisingly, has come on the ground. Washington and Lee is the top rushing attack in the conference with 397.6 yards per game. Randolph-Macon, which ranks second, is averaging 206.9 yards per game. At least the Hornets know what's coming.
"Yeah, we know what they're doing, but stopping it is a totally different thing," Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes said.
Shenandoah ranks second in the ODAC in total defense (349.8 yards per game) and second in rushing defense (138.0 yards per game).
"We know what they're about," Barnes said. "We know what they can do -- we've seen it. We know what their kids are like."
Luke Heinsohn leads the Generals and the ODAC with 1,133 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Keying on him could be a mistake, though -- fellow running backs Brett Murray (727 rushing yards, 8 TDs) and Sasha Vandalov (490 rushing yards, 6 TDs) also rank in the ODAC's top 10 in rushing. So does quarterback Nick Lombardo, a junior who has rushed for 935 yards and four scores, and passed for 553 and five TDs.
Keeping that offense off the field would help, but Shenandoah must once again play without injured starting quarterback Corey Taylor. Senior Shawn Lloyd, who has seen extensive action as both a starter and in relief, is coming off what Barnes termed his best game of the season in last week's 20-17 loss to Emory & Henry. In that game, the Hornets led 17-7 with 6:09 to play before surrendering two late touchdowns.
Shenandoah freshman Andrew Smith had a breakout performance last week against the Wasps, rushing for 127 yards on 33 carries. He's expecting another tough test from the Generals.
"I expect them to come out and hit hard -- I mean, they're the conference champs," Smith said. "I expect them to hit hard and try to end the game early, but I know we're not going to let them do that. Our offense, we're clicking now and the way that their defense looks, we can move the ball. I believe we can move the ball on them."
While defense has been a strength all season for the Hornets, the offense has been steadily improving over the past few games. Barnes said against Washington and Lee, all facets -- offense, defense and special teams -- will have to be humming for Shenandoah to pull off the upset.
"I said at the end of the year, we might be playing our best ball, and I see us playing our best ball," Barnes said. "Everything's starting to gel and come together."
Contact sports editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137, or firstname.lastname@example.org