Hornets struggle to build on success

By Brad Fauber

WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football program hasn’t seen a lot of success on the field in recent years, and the Hornets’ two wins at the midway point of this season has already doubled the team’s 2012 win total.

One of Shenandoah’s wins this season was a monumental 29-20 victory over rival Bridgewater two weeks ago that gave the Hornets their first-ever win in Old Dominion Athletic Conference play, and the team has already made some great strides under first-year head coach Scott Yoder.

But Shenandoah (2-3, 1-1 ODAC) has failed to build on a lot of that success so far this year. The Hornets have followed both of their wins this season with disappointing performances in blowout losses, the most recent of which came at the hands of Guilford in a 56-29 rout last Saturday.

“We have to learn how to be mature after a win. I know our program hasn’t had a lot of wins in the last couple of years, but we have to act like we’ve been there before,” Hornets senior safety Byron Mitchell said on Wednesday. “We can’t come out thinking … we got a win and let’s go party it up. We can’t be like that.”

Yoder echoed that sentiment, saying that the team probably hadn’t gotten over the victory over Bridgewater as it traveled to Greensboro, N.C., to take on Guilford this past weekend. Yoder said the Hornets may have compared the recent successes of both Bridgewater and Guilford and overlooked the Quakers on Saturday.

“You can’t ever think like that. You can’t play like that,” Yoder said. “I think that’s what happened to us. We rode that wave too long.”

Yoder shouldered the blame for not having the Hornets prepared to play against the Quakers, and he said the ultimate success of Shenandoah’s football team will hinge on the Hornets’ ability to string successes together.

“In the big picture of our football program, how our football program handles success will determine how good of a football program we can be,” Yoder said. “Athletes deal with failure all the time and it motivates them. What does success do to you? Does it make you complacent? Does it make you think you’re better than you are? That’s the big picture.”

Of Shenandoah’s three losses this season, Saturday’s was by far the most disappointing for the Hornets. Shenandoah’s offense struggled through yet another slow start, and a Hornets’ defense that played very well two weeks ago was gashed for 705 yards.

The entire Shenandoah defense suffered from a general lack of impact from its major playmakers, and a nonexistent Hornets pass rush allowed Guilford quarterback Matt Pawlowski to carve up Shenandoah’s secondary for 360 yards and six touchdowns.

The Hornets recently shifted Mitchell and fellow senior Sean Blackman — two of Shenandoah’s better defenders — from the defensive backfield to the outside linebacker positions in Shenandoah’s 4-4 defense, but the duo was fairly silent against Guilford after having big games two weeks ago. Mitchell and Blackman combined for just six tackles against the Quakers.

Yoder noted after the win against Bridgewater that Shenandoah’s inexperienced secondary needed to get better in pass coverage, and that weakness was exploited by Guilford’s prolific passing attack.

“We couldn’t get pressure. Even when we blitzed, [Pawlowski] was good enough to elude it and our coverage broke down. He exploited that,” Yoder said. “We need to keep getting better on that. We’re playing some new kids back there, but what we’re doing is the right thing and we’ll get better at it. But we’ve got work to do in the secondary, there’s no doubt about that.”

LOSING THE BATTLE: Shenandoah continues to lag behind in the turnover battle this season, as the Hornets’ defense has struggled to force mistakes from opposing offenses this season. The Hornets managed to force just one turnover in last Saturday’s loss.

The Hornets, who are seventh in the ODAC in turnover margin (-3), have now forced just eight turnovers on the season, four of which came in the win over Bridgewater. Seven of those turnovers have been fumble recoveries, while the Hornets have managed just one interception in five games.

“We need to create turnovers,” Yoder said. “That’s going to give our offense a short field. That’s going to lead to points. That’s going to lead to momentum. That’s going to lead to the defense playing at a higher level. We need to make those big plays.”

Shenandoah’s defensive realignment two weeks ago was made in order to get more playmakers on the field, and the move paid off against Bridgewater. However, the Hornets need to get more consistent play all from those playmakers in order to generate some game-changing momentum.

“I think that’s what it’s going to come down to, is that our playmakers, we just need to start making more plays,” Hornets sophomore defensive lineman Jake Payne said. “People will do their jobs, but a lot of times that’s not good enough. A lot of times you need your playmakers making plays, forcing turnovers and getting sacks, all that stuff.”

NEFF GETS THE NOD: Yoder said freshman quarterback Justin Neff will get the start this Saturday against Catholic University and will “play most of the game.” Neff had previously been rotating with junior Drew Ferguson.

“We’re going to move away from the rotations,” Yoder said. “We feel as a staff that Justin gives us the best chance to win with who we are right now. He’s going to start, and until he proves otherwise he’s going to be the triggerman.”

Neff has completed 60 of 97 pass attempts for 698 yards and five touchdowns this season, while Ferguson has completed 36 of 70 for 464 yards and five touchdowns. Neff has thrown just one interception this season, four fewer than Ferguson.

Yoder didn’t rule out using Ferguson in certain situations throughout Saturday’s game, but Yoder said he is hoping stability at the quarterback position will help give Shenandoah’s offense a boost early in games.

“You look at where our team’s at right now and when we’ve been successful, what Justin brings to the table, I think our offense is going to get jump-started by that, just knowing that he’s going to be back there for a lot of the reps,” Yoder said.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD