By Brad Fauber
WINCHESTER -- The Shenandoah University football team was off last weekend after falling, 34-6, on the road at Christopher Newport on Sept. 21, and the Hornets took full advantage of the extra time off.
Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said the staff spent last week closely examining the team and trying to correct some of Shenandoah's inconsistencies on both sides of the football as the Hornets prepare to open their Old Dominion Athletic Conference schedule on Saturday against Bridgewater.
"Two weeks gives you a chance to really take a hard look at yourself at all three phases of the game, and the big thing we came away with was we needed to get better on both sides of the ball," Yoder said. "We did that by doing good-on-good, our 1's against our 1's, which you don't typically do in a game week. Last week was get ready for Bridgewater, but focus on us -- what's going to help us get better?"
Shenandoah (1-2) has struggled to find consistency on offense so far in its new I-spread system, particularly in the running game.
The Hornets rushed for nearly 300 yards in a win against Ferrum on Sept. 14, but they managed just 54 yards rushing in the loss to CNU. Shenandoah has failed to top 60 yards rushing in two of its three games this season.
Yoder said part of the reason the running game has struggled is due to the fact that the Hornets have been playing from behind, forcing Shenandoah to rely on the passing game to try to keep pace with opposing offenses.
"When you fall behind you're going to throw a little bit more anyway," Yoder said. "The situation dictates that. When you see us in a close game, or a game like Ferrum where it's back and forth, we're much more balanced. It's not that we gave up on the run, it's that the game situation dictated that we needed to chuck it."
A few Hornets players denied that the offense is still experiencing the growing pains of learning a new offense, but junior quarterback Drew Ferguson said the offense did use the bye week to get back to the basics.
"The focus last week was to just take it back a step and work on some of the little things, more fundamentals and kind of start from the beginning," Ferguson said. "It was a great week for us and I think we learned a lot ... and from an offensive standpoint, it helped us develop a little bit more."
Sophomore running back Andrew Smith said that the Hornets simplified the playbook in practice to perfect the plays that Shenandoah feels will be most effective against Bridgewater.
"We would have one practice where we would run just three offensive plays the entire practice just to master those plays so that when we go into the game ... we can pretty much do it in our sleep," Smith said.
STARTING SLOW: The Hornets have not been strong in the first quarter so far this season, as Shenandoah has played from behind for a majority of its first three games.
In each game this season, the Hornets have found themselves down by at least 14 points before the offense has put points on the scoreboard. The win against Ferrum has been the only game in which Shenandoah was able to erase the deficit and take a lead.
"We spent quite a bit of time as a staff just discussing why that's even happening, and my assessment of that is the team that we have ... kind of goes into a game feeling out the opponent in a sense of just saying, 'If they land the first punch, let's see how bad it is,'" Yoder said. "Obviously you can't do that."
Smith admitted that the offense has come out looking for the big play, which has hurt the Hornets so far. Smith said the focus in practice over the last few days has been "getting out to a quick start, but also making sure that you're doing your assignment."
MIXING AND MATCHING: Yoder has elected to make some changes to his 4-4 defense in an effort to get more playmakers onto the field.
Senior free safety Byron Mitchell has been moved to the Will linebacker spot -- a position he has played at times already this season -- and senior cornerback Sean Blackman has shifted to the Sam linebacker role.
Yoder said freshman Darryll Gadsden, senior Buddy Finley and junior David Wilburn will rotate in the free safety role, while junior Henry Howell, senior Charles Basil and Wilburn will rotate to fill the vacant cornerback spot.
"We've always tried to say, 'Get our best 11 players on the field,'" Yoder said. "Whether we win, play well, lose, don't play well, our best 11 have to be out there. We've got some good kids in the secondary and I think this allows us to get our best 11 on the field more consistently."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org