Hornets face daunting task against high-powered Quakers

By Brad Fauber

WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football team can’t afford to dwell on its loss to rival Bridgewater in the Hornets’ Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener last Saturday. Not with Guilford’s high-powered offense looming this afternoon.

The Quakers bring their ODAC-leading offense to Shenandoah’s Shentel Stadium today, and the Hornets’ defense figures to have its hands full as SU tries to bounce back with a conference win in today’s 1 p.m. contest.

“The kids are disappointed, but they’ve turned the page in a good way,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said Wednesday. “I told them there’s nobody else that I’d rather come in and play us right now because we can’t waste any time feeling sorry for ourselves … because if we don’t play well we’re going to get run out of the gym.”

Guilford enters this afternoon’s game averaging 47.8 points and 541.2 yards per game. The Quakers are also averaging 355.5 yards passing per contest, by far the best mark in the ODAC.

So what has been the focus for Shenandoah’s defense over the past week?

“Slowing down the quarterback. That’s about it,” Hornets junior linebacker Michael Messick said with a laugh. “He’s been hurting everybody.”

That quarterback is Guilford junior Matt Pawlowski, and opposing defenses have yet to slow him down this season. Through four games, Pawlowski is completing 72.1 percent of his passes (98 of 136) for 1,403 yards and 19 touchdowns. He hasn’t thrown an interception this year.

“He’s probably the best I’ve ever coached against as far as moving in the pocket,” Yoder said. “He’s athletic. He never takes a big hit. Moving in the pocket, resetting his feet and throwing — he’s fantastic. And he’s experienced. He’s got good guys around him and he can spin the ball. He’s excellent.”

Last season, Pawlowski picked apart Shenandoah’s defense to the tune of 360 yards passing and six touchdowns. Guilford won that match-up 56-29 and holds a 2-0 all-time record against the Hornets since both schools began playing each other in 2012.

Pawlowski has many of the same offensive weapons surrounding him this season, and the Quakers have been nearly unstoppable.

Junior wide receiver Adam Smith has 19 catches for 384 yards and eight touchdowns this season, and he’s joined by fellow junior Austen Thompson (21 catches, 234 yards, 2 TDs) and sophomore C.J. Hobbs (18 catches, 241 yards, 3 TDs) as Pawlowski’s primary targets. Eight different players have caught touchdown passes for the Quakers, who have scored 52 points on three different occasions this fall, including in last week’s blowout victory against Washington and Lee.

To complicate matters more, Guilford junior running back Josh Schow is averaging 111 yards rushing per game, although he did not play last week due to a calf injury.

“We are not going to stop this team. You’re not going to take a team that’s scoring 48 points a game — they have 26 scoring drives — you’re not just going to stop them cold,” said Yoder, who added that SU can “play well and give up 35 or 40 points.”

“We did a study, there isn’t a defense that they’ve played that has had four stops against them,” he added. “Nobody. That’s turnovers, on downs, getting a punt — nobody has four stops against them.”

Shenandoah’s defense has been stout this season, as the Hornets lead the ODAC in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and are second in the conference in total defense (275.5 yards per game).

Both Yoder and Hornets freshman defensive back Josh White — who intercepted his third pass of the season against Bridgewater last week — said the key for SU’s defense begins with its ability to generate pressure on Pawlowski, who has been sacked just four times this season.

“I think it starts with the d-line getting in the backfield because [Pawlowski] hasn’t been hit that much,” White said. “It starts with the pressure. We know that his o-line is pretty good, so if we can get pressure on him I think we can force him to make some bad throws and the DBs can take advantage of them.”

Perhaps Shenandoah’s best defense today will be its offense. The Hornets boast the best rushing offense in the ODAC, averaging 289 yards on the ground per game, and continued rushing success could be critical to keeping Guilford’s offense on the sideline.

Sophomore Cedrick Delaney leads Shenandoah’s three-man rotation at running back, carrying the ball 63 times for 433 yards and two touchdowns. Junior running back Kye Hopkins has 51 carries for 243 yards and five touchdowns.

Shenandoah senior quarterback Drew Ferguson has also been an effective runner in the Hornets’ read-option, rushing for 275 yards and a score in addition to passing for 465 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Yoder said Shenandoah will need to take advantage of some matchups in the passing game against Guilford’s man coverage, but the primary focus remains to establish that rushing attack in order to possess the football and keep Pawlowski off the field.

As a result, Yoder said Shenandoah could tone back its customary fast pace on offense at times in order to give its defense some needed rest.

“If up-tempo’s helping us, we need to score points. Up-tempo is going to help us score points. We just have to be smart about when we tempo and when we back it down because if we can control the ball and keep their offense off the field, that’s the best thing we can do for our defense,” Yoder said.

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