Hornets shifted focus inward during bye week

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team is off to its best start in program history, but the Hornets’ march to 3-0 wasn’t flawless. So Shenandoah used its bye week last week to turn its focus to internal improvements ahead of Saturday night’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener against rival Bridgewater.

“We went over some Bridgewater stuff but it was more focused on what can we do as a unit to get better,” Hornets senior defensive end Jake Payne said Wednesday. “But in no means did we take a week off. This is my fourth year here and this was by far the most intense bye week when it comes to just energy. If you were just watching practice you’d have no clue it was a bye week. I mean the intensity was there. Kids were just running around smacking people. It was a great week.”

Payne attributed much of that high energy level to Shenandoah’s perfect record, which he said has motivated the Hornets to maintain that performance in preparation for their Homecoming game against the Eagles, who have beaten Shenandoah in 14 of 17 lifetime meetings.

Hornets head coach Scott Yoder pointed to his team’s conditioning as one of the decisive factors in Shenandoah’s win over North Carolina Wesleyan two weeks ago, and he said the Hornets “took that to heart” when attacking the bye week.

“We’ve continued to talk with our guys just about how to handle everything,” Yoder said. “The good thing is our leaders and our guys that are making a lot of plays for us have been around here for a while and it’s not too long ago that we felt pretty good in October, and we had beaten Catholic and we played Hampden-Sydney and we didn’t win again. That was last year. That’s fresh in our minds and even though it’s a different team this year, those guys lived that and I think they understand we’ve got to play well every week and there’s been good focus this week and good energy.”

Though Payne couldn’t speak for the rest of Shenandoah’s defensive unit, he said the defensive line went “back to basics” last week, with a big emphasis placed on repetition and technique, as well as conditioning.

Senior center Dustin Edwards said the same held true for the offensive line.

“We can always improve our run game,” Edwards said. “We pride ourselves on being able to run the ball. Obviously against N.C. Wesleyan we had a good performance running the ball. But just small things, you know, working on certain techniques and stuff, stuff in the run game, stuff in the pass game. Nothing too major. I mean, we’ve been doing pretty good.”

Getting defensive: While Shenandoah’s offense has been racking up 41 points and 462.3 yards per game, the Hornets’ defense has been making things tough for its opposition.

SU ranks in the top half of the ODAC in most defensive categories, and the Hornets rank second in the conference in scoring defense (16.7 points per game allowed) and third in total defense (309.7 yards per game allowed).

Payne said Shenandoah’s defense has played “phenomenal” so far in 2015, but added the Hornets need to cut back on mental mistakes if they hope to reach their true potential this fall. He listed his own roughing the passer call that erased a turnover, an offside penalty on fourth down and another unsportsmanlike conduct foul among the mental blunders the Hornets experienced on defense against N.C. Wesleyan.

“If you look at the first half and the second half of N.C. Wesleyan … we shut them out in the second half but the only difference between the first half and the second half was we were allowing them to stay in the game and we were allowing them to get yards because of just dumb penalties and just dumb mistakes by us,” Payne said.

Shenandoah has forced six turnovers through the first three games and has recorded at least one interception in each contest, and Yoder said the Hornets have done well to make opposing offenses one-dimensional while allowing just 116 yards rushing per game, the second-best mark in the ODAC.

Bridgewater enters Saturday’s contest averaging an ODAC-worst 99 yards rushing per game.

“When you just make a team beat you left-handed it usually ends up in your favor,” Yoder said. “That’s been kind of a key point from the start, from the preseason. Last year when we lost football games defensively we felt like we got hurt in the run game, so that’s kind of just been our calling card from day one and we’re gonna continue to try to do that.”

Injury report: Yoder said the bye week was “crucial” from a team health standpoint, but wide receiver Deshon Brown’s status for Saturday’s game remains uncertain.

Brown, who is working back from an AC joint sprain in his shoulder, Yoder said, will be a game-time decision. The junior leads Shenandoah with 10 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown.

“We shelved him last week. He did cardio all week but was not in practice,” Yoder said. “Yesterday he was in pads but with no contact. Looked good, felt good but that’s a game-time decision.”

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