By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University head football coach Scott Yoder looks like a defensive genius following last Saturday's 29-20 win over Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Bridgewater.
In the two weeks leading up to last weekend's game, Yoder -- who also serves as the Hornets' defensive coordinator -- met with his staff and came to the decision to move defensive backs Byron Mitchell and Sean Blackman to the outside linebacker positions in Shenandoah's 4-4 defense.
The shift, which was made in an effort to get the Hornets' best 11 athletes on the field, paid immediate dividends. Shenandoah (2-2, 1-0 ODAC) put together its best defensive performance of the season, as the Hornets forced four turnovers, recorded six sacks and forced a balanced Bridgewater offense to become one-dimensional.
The performance provided a much-needed building block for a Hornets defense that ranks near the bottom of the ODAC in every major statistical category, and Yoder said Shenandoah can draw two distinct lessons from Saturday's game.
"One, from the coaching standpoint, it's the great teaching tool of, 'Look at what you guys are capable of when you prepare mentally and physically the right way, and when you put out great effort,'" Yoder said during Wednesday's media day. "From the other side, it's the 'Guys, this is how we have to play every week.' This is how we have to play to reach our full potential."
Mitchell, who has started the last three seasons at safety for the Hornets, thrived in his new position at left outside linebacker. The senior recorded 13 tackles (11 solo), 2.5 sacks, forced two fumbles and recovered another. Mitchell was named the ODAC Defensive Player of the Week for the second time this season.
The defensive realignment also forced some inexperienced players into the defensive backfield, as freshman Darryll Gadsden and junior Henry Howell filled in for Mitchell and Blackman, respectively.
Gadsden finished with seven tackles (four solo) and a fumble recovery, while Howell -- who Yoder considers one of Shenandoah's best athletes -- finished with four tackles and a pass breakup.
The performance from the Hornets' secondary was encouraging, but Yoder said there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"Watching the film, we need to play better in the secondary," Yoder said. "I don't think that we played poorly, but down the line I think that's where we can make the most improvement just playing together and closing down some things they might have had on us in the pass game."
Shenandoah's six sacks on Saturday was a season-high for the Hornets, who had just three sacks total in their first three games this season. The Hornets were able to force the Eagles into obvious passing situations by taking away Bridgewater's running game, which allowed Shenandoah's defensive front to focus solely on putting pressure on Eagles quarterback Willie Logan.
"I think we should've had that performance all throughout our season, and for it to finally come out, it shows what we're capable of," Hornets junior defensive end Ian Griffin said. "We have to be able to do that every week."
RISING TO THE CHALLENGE: Lost in the shadow of Mitchell's defensive performance on Saturday was the effort of sophomore cornerback Bayvon Young, who emerged as a leader in Shenandoah's revamped secondary.
Serving as the lone defensive back with any significant experience for Shenandoah, Young finished with three tackles, an interception, a blocked field goal, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Young admits he questioned Yoder's decision to shake up the defense prior to Saturday's game, but Young quickly changed his tune.
"I just played my game. I wasn't worried about me, and my other DBs I was confident in. Practicing with them every day, I trust them and they trust me," Young said.
Young was also tasked with covering Bridgewater wide receiver Cassidy Burns, who entered Saturday's game with 16 catches for 320 yards and three touchdowns. Burns had just two catches for 37 yards against Shenandoah.
"He had a difficult night as far as he was going up against a really good kid every snap," Yoder said. "He had a big game ... and that's how we need him to play."
QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL: Yoder remains adamant about sticking to the Hornets' two-quarterback system, and the head coach continued to rotate freshman Justin Neff and junior Drew Ferguson late in Saturday's game despite Neff effectively leading four of Shenandoah's five scoring drives, including a crucial 95-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter.
Neff, who entered the game on Shenandoah's third offensive series, completed 12 of 22 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Ferguson was 6-for-9 for 49 yards and threw an interception midway through the fourth quarter that was returned for a touchdown that pulled the Eagles within nine points.
The Hornets struggled to move the football with Ferguson under center after the junior led them to a touchdown on their first offensive series, but Yoder cited Ferguson's clock management skills as the primary reason the junior was asked to lead the offense in the fourth quarter.
"They were both playing well. I do like how Drew manages the game, and until he gives me something to change my mind, I really like that about him," Yoder said. "I think it was the right thing to do."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD