Hornets shooting for validation of early success against Hobart

Senior wide receiver Michael Ashwell is part of a Shenandoah University offense that has ripped through opposing defenses so far this year, averaging 50.5 points and 555.5 yards of offense against Gallaudet and North Carolina Wesleyan to start the season. Shenandoah University courtesy photo

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team has rolled through the first two weeks of the season. The Hornets now get the chance to make a statement this weekend.

SU travels to Geneva, New York tonight for a 7 p.m.  non-conference contest against Hobart College, the first-ever matchup between the two schools in any sport.

For Shenandoah (2-0), the game presents the opportunity to claim a signature win against a program that has made the NCAA Division III playoffs in five of the last six seasons. Hobart (1-1), last season’s Liberty League co-champion and the alma mater of Hornets head coach Scott Yoder, started the season ranked 14th in the D3football.com preseason poll before dropping out of the top 25 after a 34-20 loss to Brockport in the season opener.

Under longtime head coach Mike Cragg, the Statesmen have won four Liberty League titles over the last five years.

“I think (a win) would definitely shoot our confidence to an even higher level than it already is,” Hornets junior quarterback Hayden Bauserman said Wednesday. “Playing against a team who’s regularly in the top 25 and regularly in the playoffs, that’s something that we want to be. And if we can come out on top this week I think it would just mean everything to us, to know that we kind of belong and that it’s not just a fluke.”

SU has torched opposing defenses so far, averaging 50.5 points and 555.5 yards of offense in blowout victories over Gallaudet and North Carolina Wesleyan to start the season. The Hornets need to continue to produce against Hobart and an offense led by the 2016 Liberty League Offensive Player of the Year (senior quarterback Shane Sweeney) and a 2016 D3football.com first team All-American (senior receiver Brandon Shed).

Last season Sweeney ranked fifth in the country in passing touchdowns (36) and seventh in passing yards (3,436), with Shed hauling in 74 receptions for 1,284 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Sweeney has not matched that same pace through two games this season – he’s completed 45 of 75 passes for 512 yards and three touchdowns, and threw three interceptions in the opener after throwing six all of last season – but Yoder said Sweeney’s ability to scramble and make throws on the run makes him a dangerous weapon for a Hobart offense averaging 25.5 points and 375.5 yards per game in 2017.

“I think he’s very Brett Favre-esque in that way, in that it’s when the play breaks down, now probably the more important play starts because the play they drew up was for 15 yards and the play they didn’t draw up might go for a 60-yard touchdown pass,” Yoder said.

“I think the only way that teams have really – I don’t know that that they’ve slowed them down but they give him multiple looks and they take away his safety blanket, and that’s usually Shed. And can you do that for 75 plays? Most teams haven’t been able to do it.”

Shenandoah’s defensive secondary passed its first true test of the season last week against N.C. Wesleyan, limiting Battling Bishops quarterback Nate Gardner to 8-of-25 passing for 173 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. The Hornets have already forced 10 turnovers (five interceptions).

Yoder said Hobart tight ends Zach Withers and Matt Woods – who stand 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-6 and present matchup problems in the passing game – are underrated pieces of the Statesmen offense, but Shed will most certainly be a focal point of SU’s secondary.

Shed has yet to find the end zone this season but leads Hobart in receptions (15) and receiving yards (201).

“We’ve just gotta make sure he doesn’t have some kind of monster game that we can’t keep him in the ballpark,” Yoder said. “(Shenandoah senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. is) gonna shadow him. We’re gonna give him different looks. We’re gonna give him underneath and over-the-top coverage, and we’re gonna take our chances on some times and bring heat and play man. Just don’t give them the same thing every time.”

Defensively, Hobart should provide more resistance to a Shenandoah offense – led by Bauserman’s 728 passing yards and nine touchdowns – that ranks among the top 10 nationally in a handful of categories and is coming off a record-setting scoring output in a 61-14 win last week.

Yoder likened the Statesmen defensive front to that of Randolph-Macon’s in 2016, a unit that led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in scoring defense and total defense. Hobart surrendered 603 yards (360 passing) to Brockport in the opener but bounced back to limit St. John Fisher to 280 total yards last week.

“They’re very good. They’re very disciplined. They’re very physical,” Yoder said. “But I think that with our offense, the way it’s built, if we hang in there through the first couple quarters, I think if we can get them chasing some screens and throwing the ball quick-step, they’re not gonna get as much pressure because Hayden gets it out so quickly, we can maybe get them chasing a little bit. I think we’re gonna have more opportunities on the edges than we are gonna be right up the middle, just because of the way they’re built.”

Yoder, who graduated from Hobart in 2001 and spent 12 seasons as an assistant coach on Cragg’s staff before taking over at Shenandoah in 2013, said his familiarity with Hobart’s coaching staff makes it easier for him to “predict their adjustments.”

He added that he’s told the Hornets that Saturday’s contest would be similar to a playoff game, in that they’ll be traveling to an unfamiliar venue against an unfamiliar, “very good” opponent.

“You win a playoff game, a game like this, by just letting it rip, by doing what we do and not going up there playing tight,” said Yoder, who is returning to Hobart for the first time as an opposing coach. “Just being relaxed and letting it rip, and at the end of the day let’s see where we’re at.”