Fauber: Opener critical for SU

All throughout fall camp, one common theme has been repeatedly addressed by players and coaches in Shenandoah University’s football program — the need to develop the collective confidence and consistency that the Hornets severely lacked last season. SU can now stop talking about that goal and prove that things will be different in 2014.

The Hornets open the season — their second under head coach Scott Yoder — at Gallaudet for a 7 p.m. kickoff tonight in Washington, D.C. The game presents a tough test for Shenandoah right out of the gate and we should find out fairly quickly how much different this year’s Hornets squad is from last season’s rollercoaster ride of a team.

SU opened up against the Bison at home last year, and Gallaudet ran its triple option right through the Hornets’ defense to the tune of almost 400 yards rushing. The Bison went on to win that game 31-20, the beginning of a nine-game win streak that vaulted Gallaudet to its first NCAA playoff appearance in the school’s 150-year history.

That game also marked the start of a very up-and-down season for the Hornets, who could never seem to string together consecutive sound performances on the football field.

To be fair, there were a lot of different factors working against the Hornets in their opener last season, with the obvious obstacle early on being the coaching change. While everyone in the Shenandoah program was excited about the arrival of Yoder and the new coaching staff, it also meant that the Hornets would be spending most of the season just trying to get comfortable in their new schemes.

So while Shenandoah was still trying to grow accustomed to its newly installed 4-4 defense in last year’s opener, Gallaudet took advantage with some big plays quickly in the first quarter, took the wind out of the Hornets’ sails early and cruised to the 11-point win.

That adjustment period did SU no favors while the Hornets also had to develop some way to effectively slow down an offense that most football teams rarely see, and an offense that is almost impossible to mimic in practice if you haven’t spent years perfecting the triple-option.

I’m not blaming Shenandoah’s defense for the team’s loss in Week 1 last season — the Hornets’ offense never established a running game and fought through many growing pains of its own — but when Gallaudet marched 68 yards for a touchdown on just four plays less than four minutes into the game, it was obvious that a team that was still searching for an identity was a little overwhelmed.

Shenandoah won’t have that excuse this season. The Hornets are coming into the season with a better idea of who they want to be. Players know their roles and assignments, the schemes are no longer unfamiliar and there is a solid core of returning experience from last year’s team. The Hornets don’t expect to see — and probably shouldn’t see — those same growing pains that plagued them in 2013.

The Hornets don’t necessarily have to win tonight’s game to prove things will be different in 2014. I’m not sure just how this year’s Gallaudet team stacks up against last season’s, but the Bison are coming off a playoff appearance and for that reason I give them the slight edge tonight. But Shenandoah needs to play well.

It can be argued that the “real” season for Shenandoah starts on Oct. 4 with the Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener at rival Bridgewater. But Shenandoah has three non-conference games to play before that. For the Hornets to accomplish what they want to accomplish this season, they need to start now.

And Yoder is making sure his players know that.

“Certainly you look at the big picture, and the ODAC conference is why we’re all here. But when you divide our schedule into three parts, the first part is the out of conference part and I think it’s the most important part of the season,” Yoder said Wednesday. “… If we can come out of the first part of the season with success and some confidence, I think we’re going to be going into ODAC play in a much better position and we’re going to see a different type of team from us. As a coaching staff we’ve said we’ve got to attack this non-conference schedule and we’ve got to come out of this with some success and go into ODAC play in October knowing who we are and knowing who we want to become. I think this is as important as any part of the season.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com