SU football notebook: Special teams shine in Hornets’ win

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team has experienced a couple hiccups on special teams through the first five games but has been solid in that aspect for much of the season. Last weekend at Emory & Henry, it can be argued that the Hornets’ special teams powered them to their first Old Dominion Athletic Conference victory of 2016.

Needing a spark on the road against a team SU had never beaten, the Hornets received that jolt in the way of Jalen Hudson’s kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half that tied the game. Later in the game, after the Wasps scored to pull within 8 points at the start of the fourth quarter, SU junior Josh White blocked an extra-point and returned it to the end zone, awarding the Hornets 2 points and pushing their lead back to 10.

Shenandoah, which also recovered a fumble on a punt in the win, would hold on for the 36-33 victory, the winning margin set by the 3-point swing resulting from White’s PAT block. Head coach Scott Yoder on Wednesday called SU’s special teams “awesome” in the win.

“I mean we beat them on special teams,” Yoder said. “No doubt about it.”

The Hornets, who entered last Saturday’s game with a history of losing pace early with Emory & Henry, found themselves trailing 13-0 less than five minutes into last weekend’s game and 20-13 at halftime.

Hudson erased that with his 87-yard kickoff return to trigger a string of 21 unanswered points in the third quarter.

“It was a huge kickoff return because we needed that,” said Hudson, who earned ODAC Offensive Player of the Week honors after racking up 251 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns. “I was just saying to my coach that I owed him one because the first kickoff return, I missed it. I missed that one out of bounds so I said, ‘Dang, I owe him one.’ I had to get him back. It was my chance and I was like I’ve gotta get this.”

Yoder said White’s blocked kick came out of a “pretty standard” block formation in which the Hornets tried to create three-on-two matchups on the edge of the Wasps’ field goal formation, with White lined up on the inside to create the shortest path to the ball.

White said he narrowly missed blocking a couple kicks against Emory & Henry before he streaked through the right side of the Wasps’ kicking formation and stepped in front of the extra-point attempt.

“Throughout the game we could’ve blocked endless kicks that day but it just kept coming an inch off every time,” White said. “I knew when they scored to cut the lead to eight, I knew they needed to call it to my side because I knew I could block it. I just ran through the lane as fast as I can. The lane was wide open and I just got my hands up.”

Following the win Yoder called White’s block – which was nominated for the ODAC Football Play of the Week – the “play of the game.”

“Once I did it I knew I probably just won the game or saved the game for us,” White said.

FINDING A RHYTHM: After a sluggish start at Emory & Henry that saw SU net zero yards of offense in the first quarter, the Hornets finally came alive and discovered the ground game the team has been desperately missing since Week 1.

Shenandoah ended up with 376 yards of offense and rushed 50 times for 186 yards, marking the Hornets’ highest rushing output since they ran for 246 against Gallaudet in the opener. In their three games prior to last week’s win, the Hornets had combined for 34 yards on 64 carries.

“That was really nice to see,” Hornets sophomore center Caleb Hutson said. “We’ve put in a lot of work on the running game the last couple weeks. (Against) Randolph-Macon (two weeks ago) we didn’t see the results we wanted to see but we finally did this week, so that was good.

“We’re improving each week and it’s kind of showing now finally. But we’ve just gotta keep improving each week hopefully. Get better and better in each week from now on.”

Senior running back Cedrick Delaney paced the Hornets’ ground attack with 23 carries for 137 yards and a touchdown, while Hudson added 56 yards rushing.

“I think the offensive line kind of got everything ironed out in terms of assignments and things like that,” quarterback Hayden Bauserman said.

SU’s offense also enjoyed its share of big plays in the win – the Hornets had 10 plays go for 10-plus yards, including three plays of 50 yards or more. Delaney’s 50-yard touchdown reception and Hudson’s 76-yard scoring catch both came on screen plays, prompting Bauserman to praise the ability to sustain blocks by both the offensive line and the receivers.

THIRD-DOWN WOES: Though the offense enjoyed a balance it hasn’t seen since the season opener, the Hornets continued to struggle on third downs.

SU was 0-for-14 on third-down conversions last week and now ranks last in the ODAC with a 25-percent conversion rate in those situations. Yoder called the Hornets’ third-down inefficiency last week “disgusting.”

“Six of those 14 were third-and-4 or less, so it’s not a result of messing up on first and second down. Honest to goodness I don’t have the answer,” Yoder said. “I almost feel like it’s college basketball and you’re bad at shooting free throws and some guys take the approach, ‘Let’s not practice it because it makes it worse,’ and we’ve practiced third downs. We’ve emphasized it.”

BEND, DON’T BREAK: Shenandoah’s defensive performance was a mixed bag against the Wasps. The Hornets left Emory with a victory and made a couple key stops in the second half to help maintain momentum, but they also surrendered 649 yards in the win.

Yoder, who calls his own defensive plays, joked Wednesday that he fired the defensive coordinator after last Saturday’s performance during which he said the Hornets missed 20 tackles in the first half alone that accounted for 185 extra yards.

The head coach did express his content with the defense’s ability to minimize the damage and keep the Hornets within striking distance in the first half and to generate a three-and-out following Hudson’s kickoff return to start the second half, while also expressing disappointment in SU’s inability to ward off an Emory & Henry scoring drive late in the game that included a fourth-and-18 conversion with a 48-yard pass.

“We didn’t execute at a high level but it’s as good of a mental toughness win as we’ve had here and we’ll take it,” Yoder said.

INJURY REPORT: Shenandoah will be without receivers Leonard Scott (knee) and Jalen Brisco (thumb) against Bridgewater on Saturday night, but Yoder did say Scott – who hasn’t played since the first quarter of Week 2 – could make his return next weekend against Guilford.

Scott, the Hornets’ leading receiver a year ago, had surgery to clean up cartilage damage in his knee on Sept. 26 and has progressed ahead of schedule, Yoder said. The head coach added that Scott “looks fantastic” and has been running routes off to the side during practice this week, and the plan is to work the receiver at game speed next week in practice to gauge his readiness.

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