By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University's football team became the victim of its own emotions last weekend in a humbling 56-29 conference loss at the hands of Guilford.
Many within the Hornets' program pointed to a poor mental approach as the culprit for the defeat, a byproduct of Shenandoah seizing its first-ever Old Dominion Athletic Conference victory in a win over Bridgewater the week before.
The Hornets came back to practice this week refocused while tossing out the outcomes of Shenandoah's games in recent weeks. Instead, Shenandoah is focused only on this afternoon's 1 p.m. Homecoming contest against Catholic University and how the Hornets can reverse their recent struggles against the Cardinals.
"We don't have a player or a person in the program who has ever beaten them. I know we've got some firsts in this program and we'll have some firsts coming down the line, but that was our biggest challenge to the guys -- no one here has ever beaten Catholic," Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said.
"They laid one on us pretty good last year. Our guys remember that and we've got to stay focused."
Shenandoah (2-3, 1-1 ODAC) and Catholic (3-2, 0-2 ODAC) will be meeting for just the second time as ODAC foes this afternoon, although the two teams have met nine times total on the gridiron. The Cardinals hold a 7-2 advantage in the series and have won the last two meetings, including a 34-7 win over the Hornets in Washington, D.C. last season.
The Hornets' last win over Catholic came in 2009, when they won 21-3.
Catholic comes into this afternoon's game on a two-game losing streak, with both losses coming in conference play to Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon after the Cardinals won three straight nonconference games in impressive fashion to open the season.
"They're a solid team. They're a team that if we both play well, it should be a really good game," Yoder said. "They had three nonconference games where they had some impressive numbers, then they hit ODAC play and the quality of opponent went up and they ran into some different circumstances that kind of held them down."
Catholic's offense comes into today averaging 30.6 points and 405.2 yards per game despite its recent struggles in ODAC play, although the Cardinals managed just 10 points and 214 total yards in last Friday's loss to Randolph-Macon.
The Cardinals utilize two quarterbacks in sophomores E.J. Montgomery (597 passing yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions) and T.J. Tutone (382 passing yards, five touchdowns, four interceptions). Yoder said both quarterbacks play very similar styles, although Tutone (173 rushing yards, four touchdowns) appears to be a better runner.
"I don't think there's a difference to say 'hey, if one guy's in it's going to be this system. The other guy, it's going to be this system,'" Yoder said. "I think [Tutone] ... he's going to pull it and run it a little bit more. [Montgomery] is a little bit taller, maybe a little bit better passing-wise. But I think right now they're both cookie cutters. They're both capable of beating us, but ... we've got to put pressure on them and see how they can do with people in their face."
Creating pressure will be key for a Shenandoah defense that was shredded for 705 total yards in last Saturday's loss at Guilford. After generating six sacks against Bridgewater, the Hornets managed just a lone sack on Guilford quarterback Matt Pawlowski, who threw for 360 yards and six touchdowns.
The Hornets are allowing an ODAC-worst 447.2 yards per game, including 228.8 yards per game on the ground.
Catholic has averaged 206.8 yards rushing per game this season, led by 6-foot, 237-pound senior running back Matt Pitsenberger (94 carries, 485 yards).
"They have a pretty big running back who is going to run the ball. What we want to do is make him bounce out," Hornets senior linebacker Byron Mitchell said. "We don't want him to run dive. We don't want him to get through the hole. We want to make him bounce and get the ball to the outside."
On offense, Shenandoah will begin to shy away from the two-quarterback system that the Hornets had used in their first five games, as freshman Justin Neff will get the start and "play most of the game," according to Yoder. Neff (698 passing yards, five touchdowns, one interception) had been rotating on a regular basis with junior Drew Ferguson.
Shenandoah's offense (ODAC-low 372 yards per game) has struggled to produce early in games this season, partially due to an inconsistent rushing attack. The Hornets will need to establish a running game against a Catholic defense that is second in the conference in scoring defense (19.2 points per game) and fourth in total defense (330.8 yards per game).
"I know that they'll have a good plan for us, but I think that if we can establish some run and we can throw -- we're really a ball control throwing offense," Yoder said. "We take some shots downfield but we try to get it to playmakers and let them do their things. So I think if we can get the ball into open space into our guys' hands, I think we've got a good chance."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org