Hornets’ defense has ‘a lot to prove’

By Brad Fauber

WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football team has made great strides on the defensive side of the football this season.

The Hornets were last in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in every major defensive statistical category a year ago — head coach/defensive coordinator Scott Yoder’s first season with the program — but this season SU is forcing turnovers on a consistent basis and boasts the ODAC’s second-leading rush defense (155.5 yards/game).

However, Shenandoah has surrendered more than 490 yards in three of its last four games, including in back-to-back losses to Hampden-Sydney and Randolph-Macon over the last two weeks.

Yoder said Wednesday that the Hornets’ defense has “a lot to prove” in its final two games of the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s road contest at Emory & Henry (7-1, 4-1 ODAC).

“Overall I like what we’ve done and I like how far our guys have come in a lot of different stages, being our second year. But the last two weeks we’ve given up a lot of points,” Yoder said. “Some of that is because of the opposition’s execution. You have to understand that’s going to happen sometimes, but some of it is us. I told the defense on Sunday, we’ve got really good football players in this room. If our good football players don’t make plays, we’re going to lose. It’s that simple. … That doesn’t mean that they’ve got to be Lawrence Taylor every time that the lights come on, but if our best players don’t make plays we don’t have a chance.”

The Hornets’ latest struggles came in last week’s 47-23 loss to Randolph-Macon, as SU simply had no answer for the Yellow Jackets’ physical ground game. Randolph-Macon finished the game with 361 yards rushing against what was, at the time, the ODAC’s leading rush defense.

The Yellow Jackets do boast one of the premier rushing attacks in the conference, and Shenandoah also had to face high-powered offenses in Hampden-Sydney and Guilford over the last four games. But Hornets senior linebacker Sean Blackman said SU’s defense deserves most of the blame for the big numbers put up by opposing offenses in recent weeks.

“There’s been a lot of times where the scheme and the play-calling was there but it was one guy maybe not doing his assignment or one person maybe not playing at a high level, and that one person, it wrinkles to everybody else,” Blackman said.

Emory & Henry presents yet another challenging task for Shenandoah’s defense this week, as the Wasps boast a balanced offense that has thrived in the passing game behind freshman quarterback Kevin Saxton (195 of 300, 2,222 yards, 20 touchdowns). Blackman said the key for SU will be to eliminate the big play, which is something that Shenandoah has struggled with against prolific passing offenses this season.

Yoder said the Hornets have added a few “wrinkles” to its defense specifically designed to counteract Emory & Henry’s offense this weekend.

“We want to try to show them something, but really that’s not what it is,” Yoder said. “It’s not a lot of smoke and mirrors but it’s just a couple calls to help our guys just play a little bit more aggressively and be more of the defense that we need to be and make negative plays. In the end though it’s going to come down to who tackles and gets off blocks better, so we know we need to get back to those basics as well.”

PASSING GRADE: Skyline High School graduate and current Shenandoah freshman Travis Siever made his first collegiate start at right tackle against Randolph-Macon this past weekend, and Yoder had plenty of good things to say about the 6-foot-, 280-pound lineman’s performance.

“If you want to take the silver lining out of Saturday was the fact that we threw a freshman in there … and he played really, really well,” Yoder said. “We grade all of our players. He graded out really well. … He played really well and I think that’s a great thing for him, but also for our future. If we’ve got to play him the next two games, if he’s got to start and take all the snaps, I feel very confident that he can get the job done.”

Siever’s opportunity arose after the Hornets suffered injuries to starting linemen Ivan Ayala and backup Philip Pasco over the last few weeks. With Siever helping hold down the right side, Shenandoah gained 385 yards of offense, including 164 yards rushing on 28 carries.

More importantly, Siever — who is in line to start again this weekend — has gained the confidence of senior quarterback Drew Ferguson.

“I have complete confidence in him and he did a good job. He got me hit one play, but so do the other linemen. They get me hit every now and then,” Ferguson said with a grin.

INJURY UPDATE: Yoder ruled out a return for Ayala this week, as the senior offensive tackle is still working back from a fracture he suffered in his left foot prior to the Hornets’ game against Catholic University back on Oct. 18.

Yoder said after last Saturday’s game that doctors have recommended Ayala have surgery to correct the injury at some point, and the head coach added that Ayala could possibly be awarded a medical redshirt for this season if he is shut down for the rest of the year, meaning Ayala could return to Shenandoah next season.

The status also remains unclear for Pasco, who suffered a knee injury against Hampden-Sydney. Yoder said the coaching staff had yet to receive any updates from an MRI as of Wednesday afternoon, but the initial fear has been that Pasco has suffered an ACL injury for the second straight season.

Shenandoah did get some good news on the injury front on Wednesday night, as freshman cornerback Josh White was cleared to return to action after suffering a neck injury against Randolph-Macon.

Yoder said Wednesday afternoon that White would play this weekend if he was cleared by doctors.

White suffered the injury after colliding with a Yellow Jackets receiver in the third quarter, and Yoder said White complained of a tingling sensation in his extremities. Yoder added that White was moving his arms and legs and talking while medical staff attended to him on the field, but White was transported to the hospital as a precaution. He returned to campus later Saturday night, Yoder said.

White is second in the ODAC with five interceptions this season.

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