By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University's football team expected to see a physical running game from visiting Catholic University when the two Old Dominion Athletic Conference teams squared off during the Hornets' Homecoming game on Saturday afternoon.
But what the Hornets didn't expect was to be physically dominated on both sides of the ball by the Cardinals.
Catholic essentially manhandled Shenandoah at the line of scrimmage, rolling up 519 total yards and stifling the Hornets' struggling offense in a 37-7 rout. Shenandoah managed just 199 yards of total offense.
The Cardinals rushed for 326 yards on 63 carries and averaged nearly six yards per play. Catholic also finished with 30 first downs in the win.
"It did surprise me how much we got dominated up front, because that's what happened. They dominated us," Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said. "They just beat us up, stole our lunch money and we had no answers. I had no answers as a coach. We had no answers as a staff. The results showed that."
Shenandoah (2-4, 1-2 ODAC), fresh off a forgetful performance last weekend in which the defense allowed 705 yards to Guilford, struggled to contain Catholic's running back tandem of Michael Pitsenberger and Nick Cortese.
Relying heavily on shotgun formations featuring three and four wide receivers, the Cardinals' up-tempo offense continuously pounded Pitsenberger and Cortese into the middle of the Hornets' defense, often getting six or seven yards before Shenandoah could bring them down.
Pitsenberger led the Cardinals' charge with 199 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, while Cortese added 138 yards on 20 carries. Catholic's running game was so effective early on that Cardinals head coach Dave Dunn said his offense ran only three different running plays the entire game.
"We limited that and the whole thing was just play fast and keep moving the chains and eventually we'll wear them down," Dunn said of Catholic's offense, which ran 87 plays on Saturday. "Our goal on offense is to get those [Shenandoah defensive] starters out of the game because they're tired and then try to play a good portion of the plays against their second defense. And then our philosophy is our 1's should be better than their 2's. I think it worked today."
Catholic's fast-paced offense proved effective from the start, as the Cardinals (4-2, 1-2) marched 80 yards for a touchdown on 13 plays on the first drive of the game. Pitsenberger capped the drive with a 10-yard score on fourth down to give Catholic a quick 7-0 lead.
Shenandoah answered later in the quarter with a 14-yard touchdown run by Andrew Smith (20 carries, 70 yards) that capped a short three-play, 35-yard drive to tie the game, but that would mark the pinnacle of the Hornets' offensive success.
Shenandoah's running game continued to struggle against the Cardinals, as the Hornets managed just 109 yards on 38 carries despite a determined effort to establish the ground game against Catholic. The Hornets were also just 2-for-15 on third down conversions and scored just once in four trips to the red zone.
"They were coming in hitting, smacking us in the mouth," said Hornets freshman quarterback Justin Neff, who was 10 for 15 for just 48 yards. "They opened our eyes early, and they just had the momentum going with them so it kept getting more physical.
"It seemed like we were stuck under water fighting for air."
Catholic reclaimed the lead early in the second quarter when a Shenandoah personal foul on a Cardinals field goal attempt set up a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Pitsenberger, and Catholic turned a Shenandoah fumble into a quick 23-yard touchdown drive just before halftime to take a 21-7 lead.
A 51-yard kickoff return by Smith gave the Hornets excellent field position at the Catholic 31 to start the third quarter, but Smith was later stuffed at the Cardinals' 1 on fourth down. Catholic's offense immediately marched 92 yards down the field and ended the drive with a 24-yard field goal by Peter Rosa to extend the Cardinals' lead to 24-7.
Shenandoah's ineffectiveness on offense this season has been a frustration for the Hornets, but sophomore defensive tackle Jake Payne denied that the Hornets' offensive struggles put any added pressure on the defense on Saturday.
"People can say 'well, you guys didn't have any help from your offense,' but I don't think that's correct at all. We let them drive on us, and that's all you can say about it," Payne said. "They were just driving on us, and great defenses don't allow that. No matter what your offense is doing."
Catholic quarterback T.J. Tutone (10 for 13, 123 yards, 2 TDs) found Alex Evans on a 16-yard touchdown pass later in the third quarter for the duo's second scoring connection of the afternoon, and Pitsenberger added another 1-yard scoring run with 4:49 left to play.
Shenandoah now has to turn around and travel to Hampden-Sydney (5-1, 3-0) -- the preseason conference favorite -- next weekend.
"I know that we're on the right path. I know we're doing the right thing," Yoder said. "Our biggest job as a coaching staff is not losing our guys and finding a way to get a little bit better."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD