By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Many players within the Shenandoah University football program had spoken of the desire to make a statement in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference this season. On Saturday night at Shentel Stadium, the Hornets made that statement.
Hornets running back Andrew Smith ran for two touchdowns, quarterback Justin Neff threw for two scores and an opportunistic Shenandoah defense forced four turnovers in a 29-20 win over visiting Bridgewater in the ODAC opener for the two schools.
The win over the previously unbeaten Eagles was the first-ever ODAC win for Shenandoah, which joined the conference last season.
"This is an exciting win and I feel like we just made a big statement in the ODAC," Hornets senior Byron Mitchell said. "Bridgewater has been getting nationally-ranked votes ... beating a high-profile team like that is great, not just for us but for our whole program, our whole school. We went out there and gave it our all tonight. We really deserved this win."
Sporting an all-red uniform combination in a fitting tribute to the program's "Red Dawn" mantra, Shenandoah (2-2, 1-0 ODAC) appeared to have wiped the slate clean coming off the team's bye week last week, as the Hornets came out with an energy and vigor against the Eagles (3-1, 0-1) that had been a long time coming for the rebuilding program.
In a reversal of Shenandoah's typical early-game misfortunes, the Hornets put together a complete effort in the first half. Shenandoah's defense forced a pair of Bridgewater turnovers, and the Hornets were able to capitalize by scoring on four of their first five possessions to build a 22-7 lead going into halftime.
"The kids came out, the offense moved the ball, the defense got some stops. [They] fed off each other, and that's what good teams do," Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said.
Shenandoah's defense, which had undergone a few adjustments prior to Saturday's game, quickly set the tone for the Hornets as a third-down sack by Mitchell on Bridgewater quarterback Willie Logan forced a three-and-out for the Eagles on the game's opening drive.
Mitchell's sack was one of six for the Hornets in the game, and Shenandoah also forced three fumbles and an interception. No one on the Hornets' defense made a bigger impact than Mitchell, who made the transition from free safety to outside linebacker this week in an attempt by Yoder to get his best 11 players on the field.
Mitchell thrived in his new role, as the senior recorded 13 tackles (11 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
"If you look at the stat line, it's ridiculous," Yoder said. "The kid's all over the place. That was a great move, and he made us look smart. We love players like that."
Shenandoah's offense responded to the defense's early stop with a four-play, 57-yard drive that ended in a 13-yard touchdown run by Smith that gave the Hornets a 6-0 lead just over three minutes into the game.
Bridgewater answered with a short touchdown drive that was set up by a 60-yard kickoff return by Jordan Hartman, but Shenandoah's defense again came up with a big play to swing the momentum when cornerback Bayvon Young forced a fumble that the Hornets recovered at midfield. Young also had an interception and a blocked field goal for Shenandoah.
A personal foul on Bridgewater following the fumble gave the Hornets the ball at the Eagles' 28, and Neff found wide receiver Devon Newton in the back of the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown pass three plays later to put the Hornets up 12-7 with 4:11 left in the first quarter.
"We had trips to the right, so the safeties were kind of fading to the right a little bit, and I noticed that their corner was playing up on close man," said Neff, who was 12-for-22 passing for 145 yards. "I had enough faith for [Newton] to go get it, so I just knew I had to get the ball there."
Shenandoah freshman kicker Tim Frye redeemed his missed extra-point on the Hornets' first touchdown by nailing a 32-yard field goal early in the second quarter, and a strip-sack by Mitchell on Bridgewater's next play set up the Hornets' offense with yet another short field.
Shenandoah responded by going 40 yards on seven plays, and Smith plunged into the end zone from three yards out to give the Hornets a 22-7 lead with 10: 53 left in the second quarter.
"We did a good job figuring out on film what their weaknesses were and coach called a good game, called a great first half, and we just exploited their weaknesses until we made them change," said Smith, who finished with 72 yards on 22 carries.
The Hornets' biggest drive of the game came in the third quarter, as Shenandoah marched 95 yards to the end zone on 11 plays. The drive ended when Neff found tight end Miles Green for a 32-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-4 conversion attempt.
Logan (27-for-50, 276 passing yards) scored his second rushing touchdown of the game with 9:05 left to play to pull the Eagles with two scores, and things got interesting when Hornets quarterback Drew Ferguson was intercepted by Darrick Gore, who returned the pick 38 yards for a touchdown to cut Shenandoah's lead to nine with 7:30 remaining.
Shenandoah has used a two-quarterback system with Neff and Ferguson this season, and Yoder said he will "take a hard look to see if maybe the rotation did put us in a bad situation."
Shenandoah will now turn its sights to Guilford, as the Hornets look to put together back-to-back wins in the ODAC for the first time in the program's history.
"The big thing here is, good teams find a way to get better from this and move on," Yoder said. "Now it's going to test our maturity ... can we handle a little bit of success? We're going to coach the heck out of them this week and we'll see if we can hang and put two together."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD