By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- It's tough to overstate just how important last Saturday's win over Ferrum was for the Shenandoah University football program.
For starters, the win snapped the Hornets' 10-game losing streak that had been in place since Week 2 of last season, and it also ended an eight-game slide against their former USA South Conference rivals. It was also the first win for Shenandoah under head coach Scott Yoder.
Senior safety Byron Mitchell called the win "probably the best game, as a team, that I've ever played in," and Yoder even went so far as to say that he hopes the team can look back a few years from now and view last Saturday's victory as one of the major turning points of the program.
But while last weekend's victory brought a much needed sense of relief to a program that is trying to regain its footing under a new coaching staff, the Hornets know that it was just the first stride on the path towards being consistently competitive -- and the next step begins tonight with a trip to Christopher Newport.
"We're definitely confident, but that game we've just put behind us now," Mitchell said of last Saturday's win over Ferrum. "We're going into a new week. Right now, it's like coach Yoder told us on Sunday, he said, 'We're 0-0.' We're not worried about that win last week, we're going on to a new opponent now."
Shenandoah (1-1) and Christopher Newport (2-0) have met on the football field every season since 2001, as both teams competed as members of the USA South before Shenandoah moved to the Old Dominion Athletic Conference last season. The Captains hold a 9-3 advantage in the series and have won the last eight games against the Hornets. Tonight's 7 p.m. game will be the final meeting between the two schools for the foreseeable future.
The Captains are coming off a 17-7 win over preseason ODAC favorite Hampden-Sydney last weekend, and the Hornets are expecting to see a very complete team when they square off with Christopher Newport tonight.
"[They're] very well coached, a very good defensive team," Yoder said "They're in the top 10 in the country in scoring defense, giving up 8.5 points per game. Offensively they're pretty solid and they've got some big-play potential. They've scored 17 points in both of their games, but I think that's because they're playing smart. They realize their defense is playing well and they just kind of squeeze the life out of games and don't take a lot of chances on offense."
Shenandoah found some consistency in its offense last weekend, as the Hornets generated 472 yards on a whopping 90 offensive plays. The Hornets were particularly strong in the running game, as they churned out 297 yards rushing, led by sophomore Andrew Smith's 185 yards on 25 carries.
Junior quarterback Drew Ferguson emerged as the hot hand in Shenandoah's two-quarterback system last weekend, throwing for 152 yards and two touchdowns, but Yoder said both Ferguson and freshman Justin Neff will continue to split the action again tonight.
The Hornets will have their hands full with an aggressive and opportunistic Christopher Newport defense that forced eight turnovers last Saturday. The Hornets are currently minus-one in turnover margin, and Yoder stressed the importance of not spotting Christopher Newport an early lead like Shenandoah did against Ferrum last week.
"We have to take care of the football. We're not good enough talent-wise to turn the ball over and still think that we're going to win," Yoder said. "We have to be smart, make good decisions and take care of the ball. Defensively we need to cause some turnovers. We need a game-changer on defense to give our offense a short field or score a defensive touchdown -- something to change the momentum."
Christopher Newport's offense is averaging just 272 yards per game through its first two contests, but the Captains do present plenty of challenges for the Hornets' defense.
The Captains' offense is led by quarterback Marcus Morrast, a former running back who presents yet another dual threat for Shenandoah. The Hornets have seen mobile quarterbacks in each of their first two games, so they should be well prepared tonight, although Yoder said facing a dual-threat quarterback is a "worst-case scenario" for Shenandoah's defense.
Morrast has thrown for 278 yards and two touchdowns on 53.2 percent passing this season, and the junior has rushed for 54 yards and another score. Morrast has plenty of targets, as Christopher Newport has had eight different receivers catch at least one pass.
The Captains also have several weapons in the running game, with Paul Dukes (122 yards, one TD) and Storm Parker (91 yards) leading the way. Mitchell said he expects Christopher Newport to try to establish a power running game.
"A lot of downhill running -- they're going to run a lot of dives going through the middle," Mitchell said. "That's what we've got to stop this week. If we can stop that, there's a greater chance we can win this game."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org