By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University is still feeling the sting of two straight blowout losses in Old Dominion Athletic Conference play, and the road only gets tougher this week as the Hornets travel to Hampden-Sydney this afternoon for a 1 p.m. contest.
The Tigers, the preseason favorite to win the ODAC, have won four straight games and come into this afternoon's game boasting the conference's top-ranked offense and defense. Hampden-Sydney will pose one of the toughest challenges that Shenandoah has seen all season, but Hornets head coach Scott Yoder is excited about the opportunity to get back out on the football field.
"We've got a great challenge, and we've tried to take it to our kids and say, 'Listen, this is a great opportunity.' That's all this is," Yoder said on Wednesday. "This is a great opportunity for us to go down, play a really good team and see where we're at. And if we give them our best shot, we're going to have a chance to win the game."
If struggling Shenandoah (2-4, 1-2 ODAC) hopes to hang with Hampden-Sydney (5-1, 3-0), the Hornets are going to have to find a way to slow down the ODAC's most prolific offense.
The Tigers currently lead the conference in scoring offense (33 points per game) and total offense (467.5 yards per game). Hampden-Sydney, led by junior quarterback Nash Nance, also features the ODAC's most potent passing attack, averaging 292.8 yards per game through the air.
"Offensively, they're as dynamic as any team I've ever seen," Yoder said.
Nash, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, has thrown for 1,729 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 148-of-233 (63.5 percent) passing. He has also rushed for 254 yards and seven touchdowns.
Hornets senior linebacker Sean Blackman said Shenandoah will throw in a variety of stunts, blitzes and man coverage to try to get added pressure on Nash.
"As we've seen in the film, even as successful as he's been throwing the ball, whenever he's got somebody in his face ... he tends to not do his mechanics. He tends to get a little sloppy and just throws the ball up," Blackman said of Nash.
Shenandoah -- which is last in the ODAC in pass defense (214.2 yards per game) and total defense (459.2 yards per game) -- will also need to focus a lot of attention on Tigers junior wide receiver Holton Walker, who has a conference-leading 57 receptions for 828 yards and seven touchdowns. Walker averages 138 yards receiving per game, tops in Division III.
Yoder said Hornets sophomore cornerback Bayvon Young will be matched up against Walker as much as possible, although the Tigers will use a lot of motion to create mismatches for Walker against Shenandoah's secondary.
"The scheme is not an easy scheme for us. It's a unique passing game," said Yoder, who added that the Tigers run most of their plays in empty-backfield sets. "They can really throw it to anyone. They have different combinations. We've got our work cut out for us, no doubt."
On defense, Hampden-Sydney also figures to be a tough matchup for a Hornets offense that is last in the ODAC in total yards (343.2 yards per game).
The Tigers are allowing just 231.5 yards a contest this season and are holding opponents to 13.7 points per game, the best marks in the ODAC. Hampden-Sydney's front six -- which includes Sherando graduate Scott Markland (18 tackles, four tackles for loss) at noseguard and linebackers Josh Doggett (43 tackles, 12 TFL) and Tyler Ikwild (41 tackles, 7.5 TFL) -- is holding opposing offenses to just 86.5 rushing yards per game.
Freshman quarterback Justin Neff (70-for-112 passing, 746 yards, five touchdowns, one interception) will once again see a majority of the snaps for Shenandoah as the Hornets will look to reverse some of their struggles.
Yoder said that Shenandoah has been its "own worst enemy" in recent weeks, and the offense has been the victim of untimely penalties and turnovers, as well as an inconsistent running game.
Shenandoah will need to put together a complete effort on offense to hang with Hampden-Sydney, and Hornets sophomore running back Andrew Smith said he is confident that Shenandoah can find some success against the Tigers' 3-3-5 defensive alignment.
"As a whole they're just very balanced, so it will be another good test for our offense and hopefully we'll be able to move the ball," said Smith, who leads Shenandoah with 516 yards and five touchdowns on 109 carries. "I think we will be able to because ... moving the ball with our type of offense against that three-man front, six guys in the box, I think it plays a little bit to our advantage in our offense. But it's going to be interesting."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD