Stewart’s punt block ignites Hornets’ comeback win over Eagles

Casey Stewart

WINCHESTER – Special teams were a bit of a sore spot for Shenandoah University’s football team against Bridgewater on Saturday night – until a game-altering play in that very facet shifted momentum into the Hornets’ favor.

With SU trailing their rivals by 3 points early in the second half, sophomore receiver Casey Stewart blocked a Bridgewater punt to set up a short touchdown drive, keying a decisive run that sent the Hornets to a 38-20 Old Dominion Athletic Conference victory in front of a homecoming crowd of 3,776 at Shentel Stadium.

Shenandoah rallied from down 13-3 to secure its third straight victory, which improved the Hornets to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the ODAC.

“I think the second half our guys kind of woke up a little bit, and we made a couple adjustments,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said. “I thought the play of the game was the blocked punt. … That really kind of jumpstarted everything.

“We found a way. It wasn’t pretty. It was not our best game. It was sloppy in all phases but we found a way. And we’ve lost ugly enough. We won ugly, and we’ll take it.”

Hayden Bauserman

SU, which entered the game averaging over 45 points per game, had just 10 points at halftime against Bridgewater (3-3, 0-3 ODAC) and trailed at the break for the first time all season.

Expecting to start the second half with the football, the Hornets instead had to trot out its defensive unit after Jalen Hudson lost a fumble at the end of an explosive kick return to midfield.

Shenandoah’s defense responded with a quick three-and-out and Stewart streaked into the backfield on the ensuing punt attempt, getting to Bridgewater punter Plato Eliades in plenty of time to get in front of the kick. Hornets’ sophomore Nate Hill scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the Eagles’ 8-yard line.

“Coach (Kalvin) Oliver and the special teams coaches went over earlier in the week that their back line doesn’t punch out, so with my speed and my length he knew that I could get there and make a big play,” said Stewart, a Warren County High School graduate.

“I based my alignment on what they had. I could’ve either been on the outside or the inside, and I thought my best opportunity would be coming straight down almost from the middle. Something (Oliver) stressed really was just trust – trust that I’m gonna be able to come off (the punter’s) hip and get my hands there.”

Scott Yoder

The blocked punt set up an 8-yard touchdown pass from Hayden Bauserman to Hudson on the next play, giving Shenandoah a 17-13 lead it would never relinquish.

Bauserman added touchdown passes of 11 and 17 yards to Justin Ayres and Dershone Hayman in the third quarter to cap a string of 28 unanswered points that put the Hornets up 31-13 and had the Eagles playing catch-up the rest of the night.

“I think it was kind of game changer in the moment,” Bauserman, who has thrown at least five TD passes in three straight games, said of the blocked punt. “… It just kind of helped our offense kind of get into a little bit of a rhythm. We struggled early on and a lot of credit to Bridgewater’s defense. They play hard. They had a pretty good scheme coming in.”

Bauserman, the NCAA Division III passing leader entering the game, completed 35 of 55 passes for 446 yards and threw five touchdowns to five different receivers, but an Eagles team that entered the game leading the ODAC in pass defense made things difficult for the junior gunslinger.

Bauserman threw an interception and was sacked four times after having been sacked three times in the first five games.

Yoder said Bridgewater didn’t run the same pass coverage two plays in a row, and added that the Eagles mixed their second-level defenders to the point where it wasn’t clearly identifiable pre-snap whether they were linebackers or safeties or whether they were playing inside or outside the box.

“It was just making Hayden double-clutch a couple times and he hasn’t done that all year. And that’s how some of the sacks got home,” Yoder said. “I thought they did a nice job. We’ve got to take a look at it because I think there’s a formula in there to beat us.”

Shenandoah’s defense stayed true to its M.O., as the Hornets surrendered 408 yards to the Eagles – including 212 rushing – but forced two more turnovers, had five sacks and came up with timely stops to open the door for SU’s potent offense.

The Hornets, trailing 13-3 midway through the second quarter, stopped Bridgewater running back Malivai Barker (22 carries for 90 yards, two touchdowns) inches short on a fourth-down run at the SU 9, setting the stage for a five-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that ended when Bauserman hit Mike Ashwell (nine receptions, 78 yards) for a 46-yard scoring strike to cut the deficit to 13-10.

SU senior cornerback Devontae Dunn made a diving interception on a Brendon Maturey pass at the Hornets’ 24 to halt another Bridgewater drive in the third quarter, which led to Shenandoah’s third touchdown of the quarter.

“Our defense played great all night,” said Stewart, who had six catches for a team-high 81 yards and leapt over a defender to snag a 6-yard touchdown pass with 3:33 to play to put the game out of reach.

“For (Dunn) to go down on that possession and get us the ball back and give us the momentum even more, I think that’s critical in a game like this – your rival, everything’s tense, everything’s extra hype.”

Bridgewater made a commitment to the running game in the first half, sticking with the more mobile Maturey over fellow junior quarterback Jay Scroggins and attempting just three passes in the first two quarters.

Eagles head coach Michael Clark confirmed what Yoder guessed Bridgewater’s game plan would be earlier this week when he said BC wanted to avoid turning Saturday’s contest into a game of “pitch and catch,” instead choosing to make it about ball control to keep Shenandoah’s offense on the sideline.

Bridgewater was forced to stray from that plan – and insert Scroggins into the game for the first time – when SU went up 31-13 at the end of the third quarter.

Scroggins (8 of 15, 101 yards passing) led BC on its only scoring drive of the second half when he hit Greg Ward for a 34-yard touchdown pass when Ward was left wide open in busted coverage to cut the Hornets’ lead to 31-20 with 13:55 to play.

Outside of the blocked punt, Shenandoah was shaky on special teams. The Hornets allowed two long kickoff returns – one an 83-yarder in the second quarter that set up a two-play, 13-yard Bridgewater touchdown drive – and senior Jacob Newton missed a 38-yard field goal at the end of the first half.

Yoder said a big part of SU’s struggles in kickoff coverage was the absence of senior punter Christian Arias, who normally handles kickoffs. Yoder said Arias pulled a muscle in his thigh/hip during Thursday’s practice and could miss multiple weeks.

“It changed things big time. First of all we’re used to having that ball deep, high or in the end zone,” Yoder said of the kickoffs, adding that the timing was “a little off” with freshman Hunter Youngblood handling the kickoff duties against Bridgewater.

Linebacker Kyle Dexter led SU with 11 total tackles, while Skyline High grad Chris Grady had 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss for the Hornets. Running back Cory Bell had 91 yards of offense (67 rushing, 24 receiving).

Shenandoah travels to Guilford for a 1 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.