Hornets kick off ODAC play with tough test against Yellow Jackets

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team spent its off week focusing much of its attention inward in preparation for tonight’s Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener at home against Randolph-Macon College.

For the Hornets’ defense, that meant a continued emphasis on creating more turnovers and “cleaning some stuff up on our end,” SU head coach Scott Yoder said. For the offense, it was all about being more efficient, eliminating negative plays and becoming more effective on third down.

SU’s offense will need to be much sharper than it was in a loss to North Carolina Wesleyan on Sept. 17 if the Hornets hope to kick off conference play with a win for the first time since 2013. Tonight’s kickoff, which was pushed back a day due to weather, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m.

“I think our plan was to kind of pare things down (on offense) and try to get better at who we are,” Yoder said Wednesday, “and also I think this is a great challenge for us because Randolph-Macon’s front seven’s pretty good. One of the best ones we’ll see. A lot of guys back from last year. They’ve given us fits.”

The Yellow Jackets (3-0) have won seven straight over Shenandoah (2-1), including a 31-13 victory in Ashland last season. In the last three meetings between the two teams, Randolph-Macon’s average margin of victory is 25.7 points.

Randolph-Macon enters tonight’s contest with a defensive unit that leads the ODAC in scoring (8.7 points allowed per game) and rushing yards allowed (72.7 yards per game), offering yet another stiff test for SU’s offense. Behind sophomore quarterback Hayden Bauserman (874 passing yards, 10 touchdowns), the Hornets boast the best passing attack in the conference (310.3 yards per game) but they rank seventh in rushing (81.3 yards per game) and have netted minus-2 yards on the ground over their last two games while allowing 10 sacks in that span.

Last year the Yellow Jackets limited SU to 244 total yards of offense, easily the Hornets’ worst output of 2015.

“(The middle linebackers) come downhill a lot harder than a lot of other people do,” Hornets sophomore center Caleb Hutson said of Randolph-Macon’s defense. “So they don’t really read it, they just kind of flow downhill hard and get their gaps. They do a really good job of like, they each have a gap and they do a really good job containing it. So that’s kind of difficult for us because we’ll get on one but we’ll mess up another. It’s different. Not many teams do it but it’s a little difficult to kind of prepare for.”

Yoder said the Yellow Jackets’ front seven is better than that of Ferrum – whose defensive tackles proved a handful for the Hornets in their win on Sept. 10 – and that execution will be key to SU’s offensive success, whether the Hornets are forced to rely on the running game, the quick passing game or taking shots downfield.

“I think you’ve gotta take calculated risks, like every game, but they’re good enough up front, if you’re sitting back there throwing it every snap it’s gonna be miserable for Hayden,” Yoder said, adding that opposing teams have not been able to capitalize on big-play chances.

“We’re gonna have a couple shots and … we’ve gotta land those. They’ve gotta be home runs for us, not a single.”

Offensively, Randolph-Macon ranks second in the ODAC in scoring (43 points per game) and total offense (486.3 yards per game) and third in rushing (280 yards per game).

Sophomore running back Tre Frederick has 490 rushing yards and four touchdowns for the Yellow Jackets and is averaging 163.3 yards per game on the ground, the second-best mark in the conference. Yoder said Frederick’s explosiveness brings a “new dimension” to a Yellow Jackets offense traditionally known for its power rushing attack.

Randolph-Macon sophomore quarterback Joseph Vairo has completed 40 of 59 passes for 585 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions and is second on the team with 116 rushing yards.

“He’s a better thrower than they’ve had in the past,” Yoder said of Vairo. “I think of Macon and they’re just very efficient on offense. They don’t ask the quarterback to do a ton down the field but he has big days because play-action passes are open when they set the run game up. He’s a really good thrower and can hurt you with his feet.”

Shenandoah’s defense ranks third in the ODAC in scoring (23.3 points allowed per game), total defense (352 yards allowed per game) and pass defense (172 yards allowed per game), although the Hornets have allowed 910 yards of offense in their last two games, including 517 to N.C. Wesleyan last week.

“It comes down to can we slow them down at all in the run game?” Yoder said of Randolph-Macon. “And we looked at them hard in the offseason, really, really hard at them in the offseason because they’ve given us fits and they run for 4.6 yards a game in wins and they run for 4.1 yards a game in losses. So no one is stopping them.

“I think really the key for us is third downs,” Yoder continued. “But not just third downs – if we win on first down, to create third downs that they’re uncomfortable with.”

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