Brad Fauber: Hornets continued strides on the gridiron in 2014

Shenandoah University’s football team wraps up its 2014 season on the road against Washington and Lee this afternoon, and although the Hornets need a win simply to reach .500 on the season, there’s no denying the vast improvement SU has made on the field this season.

In head coach Scott Yoder’s first season in 2013, Shenandoah offered some surprise moments in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. The Hornets — who won just one game in 2012 — topped rival Bridgewater for their first ODAC win as a program last season, upset eventual conference champ Hampden-Sydney on the road a few weeks later and ended the year by beating 2012 ODAC champ Washington and Lee.

It was a tremendous step for the Hornets in Yoder’s first season at the helm, and it instantly brought some respect to SU’s on-field product.

“We’ve certainly taken steps away from being the surprise,” Yoder said on Wednesday.

As important as last season was for Shenandoah’s program, it was never really pretty. The Hornets looked like a team undergoing a coaching transition, with inconsistency plaguing SU from one week to the next. The Hornets were last in the ODAC in nearly every major statistical category for offense and defense last season. But this season things were different.

Shenandoah has had an identity this fall. By the time ODAC play rolled around, you knew what you were getting with the Hornets — an offense that was going to run the football and a defense that was stout and would make opposing offenses work for their production.

With one game left in the 2014 season, Shenandoah is second in the conference in rushing offense (261.1 yards/game), fourth in total offense (412.9 yards/game), second in rush defense (155 yards/game) and third in total defense (377 yards/game).

“I think you’ve seen a dramatic improvement on offense and defense and a lot of that has to do just with the expectation level that’s been set,” Yoder said. “… Now they [the players] know what our expectations are on offense and defense. And now our older guys, the way the program should, they can filter it down to the younger guys. … They can take some ownership in it and that’s a huge part to any program.”

The vast statistical improvement from year one to year two under Yoder hasn’t translated into a significant increase in wins — even with a victory today, the Hornets would still improve on last season’s win total by just one game. Defensive end Jake Payne, running back Cedrick Delaney and quarterback Drew Ferguson all said they feel like SU needs a win today to provide some added validation for all the progress the Hornets have made in 2014.

But even a loss to the Generals, which would be the Hornets’ fourth straight to end the season and would replicate Shenandoah’s 4-6 record from a year ago, won’t discount everything the Hornets have accomplished. They have made that leap from conference cellar dweller to a respectable program in just a year’s time. SU’s wins this season didn’t feel like upsets, and their losses weren’t givens.

Yoder said the next big step for SU’s program is developing the necessary consistency to win every week in the competitive ODAC race while also finding ways to win the “big game.” The Hornets missed out on a great opportunity earlier this season against conference front-runner Hampden-Sydney, where an SU win would’ve placed the Hornets in a tie atop the ODAC standings heading into November. Yoder said it’s important for SU to develop a mentality where they don’t just want to win those big games, but expect to.

At the rate Shenandoah is improving, that mentality could be developed as quickly as next season.

By the time next summer rolls around, Yoder will be welcoming in his third recruiting class at Shenandoah, which should only help the improvement process.

“The other really cool thing is with next year’s recruiting class … now we’ve got three groups of kids in our program that know nothing but what our program is about,” Yoder said. “That’s a really cool thing because now all they know is what we’ve instilled in them. We’re not in that transition mode anymore … and that’s a really exciting thing for us.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com