Hornets’ seniors trying to stay loose in midst of late-season skid

Jake Payne

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team is locked in the midst of another late-season slide that has seen the Hornets’ chances at its first winning season in four years disappear. But that hasn’t stopped the seniors from trying to keep things loose in the week leading up to Saturday’s season finale against visiting Washington and Lee.

“I just want to have fun,” senior defensive end Jake Payne said Wednesday. “It’s our last game of college football, possibly our last game ever of football. It’s just something you want to go out having fun with, whether you win or lose. We’ve got nothing to lose going into the game.”

The Hornets (4-5 overall) fell to 1-5 in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference following their 54-21 loss to Emory & Henry last weekend, the third straight loss for SU. Ranked 17th in the latest “http://D3football.com”>http://D3football.com top 25, Washington and Lee (9-0, 6-0 ODAC) presents Shenandoah’s toughest test this season, although SU head coach Scott Yoder said the coaching staff has emphasized keeping things loose in practice because the Hornets are a better team when players are “relaxed and having fun and making plays and enjoying the game.”

“We’ve tried to get over what happened on Saturday in a positive way, address it, talk about it. I know the guys are disappointed but also know that we’ve got a great opportunity with a really good team,” Yoder said. “… We’re gonna have to play well, and to do that you’re gonna have to make plays and you’re gonna have play at a high level and have fun. So we’ve tried to toe that line between the preparation and enjoying it out there.”

It hasn’t been all fun for the Hornets the last few weeks, however. A few players – Payne and senior inside linebacker Michael Messick included – said they’ve noticed a downward trend in the emotional investment of some of their teammates. Junior running back Cedrick Delaney said after Saturday’s loss that some players appear to “just not care about the season anymore.”

Michael Messick

“I think I definitely agree with him,” Payne said Wednesday. “I don’t think (it’s) so much the seniors, knowing it’s our last season and stuff, I think it’s a little bit more of the younger guys just like, ‘I’ve got two more years left.’ You’ve got to help us go out with a bang.”

Both Payne and Messick said there were moments in last week’s loss where the Hornets appeared “dead” even after making a positive play. SU trailed 26-0 just 13 minutes into the game.

“Even on the field you can see, like if somebody scores on us you can just see people’s heads just go straight down,” Messick said. “It’s like, there’s so much game left, why are you gonna put your head down?”

When asked if he’s noticed anything similar in regard to teammates’ attitudes, Hornets senior offensive lineman Dustin Edwards replied, “Maybe somewhat.”

“I think the biggest thing is that … around the time we lost to Hampden-Sydney (on Oct. 24), I think we lost a lot of confidence,” Edwards said. “It wasn’t like the beginning of the season when things were going good. We had a certain level of confidence about us and that’s something we need to get back to. When we play with a good level of confidence we can be pretty successful, I think.”

Yoder shot down the idea that some of his players had given up on the season but did say the most important thing this week is the “mental frame of our team,” adding that the Hornets need to be able to handle adversity in game situations better than they have the previous three weeks.

“That’s what we need to get back to because that’s who we are and that’s what our program’s about,” Yoder said. “That’s the most important thing this week is not only preparing for a good opponent, but can we mentally be in the right frame of mind by Saturday is the biggest challenge.”

DEFENSIVE WOES: During the Hornets’ slide since beginning ODAC play, SU has struggled to limit opposing offenses. In six conference games, Shenandoah is allowing 39 points per game, surrendering more than 50 points twice in that span.

In their last three games, the Hornets have allowed more than 200 yards rushing, including 301 to Emory & Henry last weekend. SU, which spent most of the season in the top three in the ODAC in rush defense, has dropped to sixth in that category this week, allowing 180.4 yards rushing per game.

Payne said the high rushing totals yielded to opposing offenses can be attributed to the Hornets’ inability to get off the field on defense. Emory & Henry was 14 for 17 on third-down conversions last week, while Randolph-Macon’s power rushing attack led to a 17-minute differential in time of possession two weeks ago.

“We’re not a big team,” said Payne, who leads the ODAC with 14 tackles for loss. “We’re a very fast and athletic team, so when you’ve got 300-pound o-linemen hitting our interior and our middle linebackers every play that just wears us down.”

Things won’t get easier for Shenandoah’s defense this week, as Washington and Lee’s option offense is churning out 443.9 rushing yards per game, by far the best mark in Division III.

“We need to get back to our style of defense and know that this game is not about stats,” Yoder said. “Teams that have played really well against W&L have given up 350 yards rushing, so I’m not concerned about the yards. But can we get those key stops and be mentally ready to go the way we need to be?”

INJURY REPORT: Yoder said he’s hoping senior running back Kye Hopkins – who the coach said is suffering from “bumps and bruises” – and senior offensive lineman Phil Way (concussion) will be back for Saturday’s 1 p.m. senior day kickoff. Neither played last week.

Sophomore kick Jacob Newton also didn’t play for the Hornets last week, and he has been shut down for the team’s final game after dealing with a season-long knee issue. Punter Christian Arias has been handling all of the kicking duties for SU.

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