Hornets feel no less the underdogs as they prepare for Bridgewater

Shenandoah University junior receiver/running back Jalen Hudson tries to shake off a tackle by Emory & Henry's Austin Oyler during a game on Oct. 7 in Winchester. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team has knocked off the top two preseason favorites in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in back-to-back weeks and have staked a claim as one of the conference’s teams to beat in 2017. But the Hornets are far from ready to ditch their underdog mentality.

Shenandoah is set to host rival Bridgewater in a 7 p.m. homecoming contest tonight at Shentel Stadium sitting at 2-0 in the ODAC for the first time since joining the conference in 2012 and off to the program’s best start in 13 seasons.

And yet, after wins over Emory & Henry and Randolph-Macon over the last two games, Hornets senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. said SU’s selection as a distant last place in the ODAC preseason coaches poll still “weighs heavy.”

“To me, knocking them (E&H and Randolph-Macon) off is kind of a tone setter but we still haven’t proved nothing,” Gilchrist said Wednesday. “We still have a lot of football to play. We still have a lot of good teams in our conference. … They all have the ability to become conference champions, so we still have that target on everybody’s back, that we are coming for everybody.”

SU head coach Scott Yoder said the Hornets (4-1, 2-0 ODAC) tried to “keep the blinders on” this week as the school celebrates with homecoming festivities, and he added that the team had two of its best practices of the season on Monday and Tuesday as SU practiced under the lights with class out of session for fall break.

Senior defensive end Thomas Whalen and junior quarterback Hayden Bauserman each said the Hornets are handling their newfound success the same as they have all season, by taking things one week at a time.

“I think that’s more relevant now probably than it was before just because we’ve never really been in this situation, being 2-0 in the conference and kind of playing from the front,” Bauserman said. “So I think now more than ever you have to focus one week at a time, especially in the ODAC. Every team’s gonna compete every week and every team’s gonna be a good team.”

Shenandoah is expecting no less from a Bridgewater (3-2, 0-2 ODAC) squad coming off back-to-back losses in conference play after opening the season 3-0, a start that included an upset over then-No. 18 Thomas More on Sept. 9.

It’s precisely the Eagles’ winless start in ODAC play that had Yoder calling them a “very dangerous” team that can afford to take risks.

“We know it’s gonna be a dogfight on Saturday,” said Yoder, whose Hornets beat Bridgewater 34-10 last season but are 3-14 against the Eagles since 2000.

Opposing defenses have yet to slow down Shenandoah’s offense. Behind Bauserman, the NCAA Division III passing leader, the Hornets boast the nation’s best passing offense (425.6 yards per game) and lead the ODAC in scoring (45.8 points per game). SU has eclipsed 600 yards of offense in two straight games.

Bridgewater, which leads the ODAC in passing defense (166.4 yards allowed per game), pass efficiency defense (106.2) and sacks (15) and is third in interceptions (eight), could test SU’s prolific aerial attack.

“I think they have the formula to beat a throwing, up-tempo offense,” Yoder said.

“They’re playing different sets, they’re bringing more pressure than they have in the past and we’ll see if that holds true. They’ve got some things that are really playing in their favor as far as this matchup goes and we’ve gotta be ready for those.”

In addition, Yoder said he expects the Eagles to play “keep away” on offense to keep Bauserman and the Hornets’ offense on the sideline.

Bridgewater rotates two quarterbacks – Jay Scroggins (673 passing yards, five touchdowns), whom Yoder called the Eagles’ “X factor,” is the passer while Brendon Maturey (302 passing yards, 183 rushing yards, six total TDs) is the runner – but the Hornets are expecting a heavy dose of senior tailback Malivai Barker.

Shenandoah’s defense leads the ODAC in takeaways and is second in sacks, but ranks last in the conference in total defense and rush defense.

“They’ve got a big offensive line. I think they know that,” Whalen said of Bridgewater. “They’re gonna try to run right behind them.”

Barker has rushed 101 times for 470 yards and six touchdowns this season, and he had 127 yards against the Hornets in last year’s meeting.

“He’s not a kid like (SU junior receiver/running back) Jalen Hudson, who’s gonna sneak away, break through, juke three guys out. He’s definitely gonna try to run you over and not gonna stop until he’s to the ground,” Whalen said of the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Barker. “Definitely just a gang-tackle ballgame.”