Nations: Hornets get off to tough start

Forgive the pun, but there was indeed a considerable buzz surrounding the Shenandoah Hornets for their season-opening football game against Gallaudet on Saturday night at Shentel Stadium.

New red jerseys? Spiffy.

New “Red Dawn” slogan? Catchy.

New outlook under first-year head coach Scott Yoder? Sunny.

If Gallaudet was impressed, the Bison didn’t show it Saturday night as they quickly delivered a one-two combination to the hosts’ collective good feelings with a pair of touchdown drives to open the game and grab a 14-0 lead. It was far from the start the Hornets were hoping for, and the Bison never really did let up in a 31-20 victory.

“You put so much into these — every week is a lot for the kids, for the staff — that it’s tough to really feel good when you put so much in and you come up short,” Yoder said. “And honestly, Gallaudet took it to us. We had trouble getting off the field, we had trouble stopping them, slowing them down. So we’ve got some work to do.”

The triple-option offense, once a mainstay in college football but now rarely seen outside of Georgia Tech’s flexbone variation and among the service academies, is a thing of beauty for football purists when it’s correctly run. It can be a nightmare for opposing coaches to prepare for, as well, with it’s inherent unfamiliarity and uncompromising requirement to maintain discipline and play “assignment” defense.

Gallaudet quarterbacks Todd Bonheyo and Quentin Williams had that offense hitting on all cylinders against the Hornets, as the Bison ripped off 390 rushing yards in the win. It was a tough opening assignment for the young Hornets and their new-look defense.

“He’s building the program the right way,” Gallaudet coach Chuck Goldstein said of Yoder. “He has some good kids, he’s trying to get them all to buy in. We have more experience on the offense, and it’s tough. Week 1, playing the option is tough for anybody. You can’t simulate what we do on offense, you can’t unless you run the triple option.”

It was tough, and it will remain tough for SU. The loss extended the school’s current losing skid to 10 games, since last year’s season-opening win against Stevenson. SU’s last win on its home field came nearly two years ago, a 28-21 win over Maryville on Oct. 15, 2011. Since then, the Hornets have dropped seven straight at Shentel. That losing has taken a toll among the Hornets’ fan base. Saturday’s announced attendance of 1,312 is the lowest ever for a Shenandoah home opener, and ranks among the most sparsely attended home games at SU since the program was relaunched in 2000.

That was surprising, considering the Hornets’ new direction under Yoder. Long a run-dominant offense under previous coaches Walter Barr and Paul Barnes, the Hornets signaled their intentions to break away from that legacy on their first offensive play as they came out in a spread offense with four wide receivers fanned out along the line of scrimmage. Freshman quarterback Justin Neff, a local kid from Winchester’s Millbrook High, was on the money with his first pass attempt on a 38-yard gain to freshman wide receiver Qlyl Middelijn. That drive eventually sputtered after five plays, but it was a promising start.

Gallaudet’s was better.

“We were definitely ready to play — I mean, we were emotionally ready,” Yoder said. “That’s one of the reasons why we took the ball. I just thought, ‘Get our guys in the groove a little bit.’ But they’re a good team, and they pretty much walked down the field the first two drives before we could have a chance to kind of get our feet underneath us. When you play a good team, you can’t allow that to happen.”

The Hornets had their troubles defensively, but SU’s sporadic offense contributed to that. Shenandoah saw three drives end with turnovers — none more than four plays in — and also was held to three-and-outs four other times. Neff said afterward that Gallaudet’s shift from a Cover-2 base to dropping back into Cover-4 influenced SU’s passing game some by limiting deep throws. Several of the Hornets’ biggest gains came on gadget plays — a staple last season — including holder Drew Ferguson connecting with Miles Green for a 27-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal in the second quarter.

Shenandoah sophomore running back Andrew Smith said the new offense, combined with it being a season opener, limited what Shenandoah’s offense was comfortable running in the game.

“It was Game 1, too, so you don’t want to throw your entire playbook out when we still have some confusion in practice,” Smith said. “You want to make sure that you’re running your high-percentage plays to at least give you a chance. You don’t want to be running plays that you’ve only practiced once or twice the entire camp and then make a mistake and like throw a pick or fumble the ball, or something like that. So it was pretty much our base offense that we were running today.”

The Hornets did put up a respectable total offense number (346) as rotating quarterbacks Neff and Ferguson combined for 246 passing yards and two touchdowns. Smith added 43 passing yards on a halfback option. SU was held to just 57 rushing yards, and lost three turnovers while the defense forced just two.

It wasn’t a dream start, to be certain. But it was a start.

“We’ll get better,” Yoder said. “I love our team, I love the direction we’re going. Tonight was our first test, and we didn’t get it done. Now we’ve got to learn from it and move on because we’ve got another good team [Ferrum] and we’re on the road.”

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD