By Brad Fauber
Shenandoah University's football team has been a witness to some ups and downs up to the midway point of the 2013 season, but one thing -- one major thing -- has remained relatively consistent. And it's not a good thing.
The Hornets' offense continues to struggle to put up points early in football games.
Going into this afternoon's Old Dominion Athletic Conference game against visiting Catholic University, the Hornets have managed just 19 combined points in the first quarter of their first five games. All but seven of those points came in a win against Bridgewater two weeks ago, and Shenandoah has been shut out in the first quarter of three different games already this season (twice the Hornets have been shut out in the entire first half).
Shenandoah's first-quarter woes have been the product of several different factors from game to game, ranging from the skill of the opposing team's defense to the Hornets simply not being ready to play on game day.
The latter issue was on full display last Saturday in a 56-29 beat down at the hands Guilford, in which Shenandoah was kept off the scoreboard in the first two quarters and found itself down 21-0 at halftime. The Hornets turned the ball over twice in Guilford territory in the first quarter and never really gained momentum until Shenandoah was down by several scores. By then the deficit was simply too large to overcome.
The loss was an eye opener for the Hornets, who seemed to finally find a cure for its early-game ailments with a dominating first half against Bridgewater, and it only reaffirmed what Shenandoah head coach Scott Yoder has been saying about the importance of proper execution since the start of the season.
"We don't have enough talent to come out and play at 75 percent or turn the ball over and still have a chance to win," Yoder reiterated on Wednesday. "We're just not there yet."
Saturday's three-touchdown deficit in the first half marked the fourth time in five games that the Hornets have found themselves down by at least two touchdowns at some point in the first half. A 43-29 win over Ferrum in Week 2 was the only instance in which Shenandoah was able to erase the deficit and take a lead.
It's tough -- and probably unfair -- to blame Shenandoah's early-game struggles entirely on the Hornets' lack of offensive production in the first half. The Hornets' defense, which ranks last in the ODAC in scoring defense (34 points per game) and total defense (447.2 yards per game), has allowed 45 points in the first quarter this season and hasn't been able to produce enough momentum-changing plays. As a result, Shenandoah has been forced to become one-dimensional on offense on multiple occasions as the Hornets played catch up.
Still, the lack of effectiveness from Shenandoah's offense is concerning, and it isn't just that the Hornets haven't been putting points on the board in the first half. Shenandoah's offense -- which ranks in the bottom half of the conference in every major statistical category -- has struggled to maintain drives.
The Hornets have been unable to consistently convert third downs over the course of the first five games, and Shenandoah is converting on just 31.6-percent of third downs, last in the conference. The Hornets are also at the bottom of the ODAC in time of possession (27:12/game), although their up-tempo scheme heavily influences that statistic.
"We have to start fast. That does not mean scoring on every drive. I don't want our guys to think that it's got be 21-0 or we didn't do our job, but we can't wait around to play," Yoder said.
The continuously sluggish starts have left the Shenandoah coaching staff searching for ways to correct the problem, and Yoder said Wednesday that the offense will begin to shift away from the two-quarterback system that it had used for the first five games.
Instead of rotating freshman Justin Neff and junior Drew Ferguson, the Hornets will turn to Neff as the full-time starter, while Ferguson will see action only in certain situations. The move makes sense for the Hornets, who will probably benefit from having more stability at the offense's most important position.
But no matter who is taking the snaps for Shenandoah, it's important that the Hornets execute at a high level for the entire 60 minutes of each football game.
"If our guys can concentrate on that, we can take care of the football and not take negative plays, get the running game going ... then we'll have a chance in every game," Yoder said. "If we don't, we're going to lose. It's that simple. We're not talented enough to not play well."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com