By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- There has been plenty of excitement surrounding the Shenandoah University football program this offseason with the arrival of new head coach Scott Yoder, and that excitement is almost sure to reach its peak tonight.
The Hornets, desperate to put last season's dreadful 1-9 campaign behind them, kick off the 2013 season with a 7 p.m. contest at home against Gallaudet University. It's a moment that the entire Shenandoah program has been tirelessly preparing for since the beginning of fall camp in mid-August.
"For me, that was the hardest camp that I've ever been through," said senior defensive tackle and team captain Preston Funk on Wednesday. "Yoder definitely has his mind set on winning, and I think everybody is willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to win. I know I didn't like going 1-9 last year."
Yoder said the Hornets have been "sky high" this week as they prepare for the Bison, and the first-year coach has been very happy with the level of excitement that he has seen out of his players.
However, Yoder said that same excitement could be Shenandoah's biggest enemy tonight, especially against a Gallaudet triple-option offense that will require the Hornets to be fundamentally sound in its defensive assignments.
Yoder said one of the main focuses of the coaching staff this week in practice has been finding a good balance between emotion and execution.
"We just need to make sure that our guys, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that we're not too keyed up," Yoder said. "It's assignment football when you play an option team, so we've got to play with emotion but understand that we've got a job to do and play our assignments."
Tonight will mark the third time that Shenandoah and Gallaudet have met on the football field, and the teams last met in the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The Hornets were winners in both contests, and Shenandoah's 40-6 win over the Bison in 2000 was SU's first victory since resurrecting the program that season.
Shenandoah's defense will have its hands full against Gallaudet's triple-option, as the Bison return nine starters from an offense that averaged 32 points per game last season.
Sophomore quarterback Todd Bonheyo, last year's Eastern Collegiate Football Conference rookie of the year, returns after leading the Bison with 690 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He also threw for 772 yards and nine scores.
"The quarterback, playing last year and being a good athlete, he scares me," Yoder said. "He's going to have a lot of experience back there and he's a good athlete that can make a guy miss and take it the house if you're not fundamentally sound."
Gallaudet (7-3 in 2012) also returns four starting offensive linemen from a year ago, as well as 2011 ECFC rookie of the year Quentin Williams, a running back who missed last season due to injury.
The Bison led the ECFC with 272.8 rushing yards per game and 26 rushing touchdowns last year.
"We need to find a way to slow them down and make them play left-handed," Yoder said. "You're not going to be able to stop everything. I've played against offenses like this before and they're very well coached. No matter what you devise scheme-wise, they have the answer to it just because they've been doing it so long and they're good at it."
The Hornets won't have the benefit of that same familiarity with their own offense, as Shenandoah has made the transition to an I-spread scheme under new offensive coordinator Stan Hodgin.
Freshman Justin Neff, a former standout at Millbrook, was named the starting quarterback earlier this week, but the Hornets' plan this is season is to run a two-quarterback system. Mount Union transfer Drew Ferguson, a junior, will share time with Neff tonight.
The Hornets have some playmakers in key positions on offense. Sophomore running back Andrew Smith returns after running for 610 yards and nine touchdowns in a shared role last season, and sophomore wide receiver Brandon Adams has shown the ability to create plays in both the passing game and on punt returns in fall camp.
Gallaudet lost four all-conference first teamers from last year's defensive unit that allowed 19.7 points per game last year, but the Bison do return some talent on that side of the ball and Yoder said he doesn't see a weakness in Gallaudet's defense.
Senior Adham Talaat, a 6-foot-6, 292-pound defensive end, is back for the Bison after recording 7.5 sacks a season ago, and Yoder said it will be important to know where Talaat is at all times.
"We've heard that they have done some different things than last year, so really our focus this week and last week as an offense was get better and control what we can control on offense," Yoder said. "We've got to find out where some of their key guys are and make sure that they don't beat us. And I think offensively, we take care of the ball, we make smart decisions and we'll be fine."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD