Hornets get another shot at Hampden-Sydney in midst of ODAC title hunt

Shenandoah University receiver Justin Ayres tries to split a pair of Bridgewater defenders during a game last month in Winchester. The Hornets travel to Hampden-Sydney on Saturday for a pivotal ODAC contest. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – The memory of the way last season ended for Shenandoah University’s football team is burned into the minds of many Hornets as they prepare for the final two-game stretch of the 2017 regular season.

A year ago, SU entered this same point in the season at 6-2 and in the hunt for an Old Dominion Athletic Conference title, and lost its final two games. The Hornets are 6-2 again this season and get a chance to reverse history at 1 p.m. today at Hampden-Sydney, the same team that started SU’s two-game slide to end 2016.

Shenandoah head coach Scott Yoder said the Hornets overlooked the Tigers – who own a three-game winning streak over SU – in their meeting in Winchester a year ago, and junior quarterback Hayden Bauserman said he doesn’t expect that to be a problem this year. Not with the Tigers (5-3, 3-1 ODAC) tied with Shenandoah (3-1 ODAC) and Washington and Lee atop the ODAC standings

“Going through it last year, and this year obviously seeing what Hampden-Sydney’s doing, we know they’re a good football team and we know we’re gonna get their best shot,” Bauserman said Wednesday. “We’re definitely gonna have to prepare the best we have all year. Yeah, we’re not gonna look past them. I don’t think there’s gonna be any trouble (with) looking past them but we know we’re gonna have to prepare the best we have so far.”

Shenandoah hasn’t been sharp in its last two games and will need to get back to the efficiency that sent the Hornets surging to the forefront of the conference race after being voted a distant last place in the ODAC preseason coaches poll.

Over their last two games – a loss to Guilford and a bounce-back win over Apprentice School last week – the Hornets have turned the ball over nine times after committing 10 through their first six contests.

“I think this game is gonna come down to us looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Can we play the way we were playing three or four weeks ago?'” Yoder said. “If we can, we’re gonna feel really good on Saturday night. If we don’t, if we aren’t playing at a high level offensively and they can control the game and they can play with a lead, we’re playing right into their hands.”

SU committed five turnovers in last week’s win over Apprentice and yet still managed to pile up 532 yards of offense to blow out the overmatched Builders, 50-15. The Hornets can’t expect to get away with similar ball security woes against a Hampden-Sydney team that historically has boasted one of the ODAC’s most prolific offenses under longtime head coach Marty Favret.

Tigers’ junior quarterback Alec Cobb (69.7 completion percentage, 2,288 yards passing, 21 touchdowns, eight interceptions) has cut back on the turnovers that plagued his first year as a starter last season – he threw 19 interceptions in 2016 – and has Hampden-Sydney averaging 303.3 yards passing per game, the third-best mark in the conference.

The Tigers don’t run the ball well statistically – their 79.5 rushing yards per game are a distant last in the ODAC – but they are flush with weapons for Cobb. Senior Cam Johnson (eight receiving touchdowns) leads the  NCAA Division III in receptions (78) and is 11th in the nation in receiving yards (911) and tops a list of Tiger receiving targets that includes fellow senior Carter Cunningham (50 receptions, 342 yards) and sophomore Major Morgan (43 catches for 613 yards, nine touchdowns).

Shenandoah has the ODAC’s No. 2 passing defense (203.8 ypg allowed) and Yoder said the Hornets would try to play matchups, such as having senior cornerback Weldon Gilchrist Jr. shadowing Johnson, though he added that Hampden-Sydney makes that difficult with their variety of plays and formations.

The Tigers have also allowed 27 sacks, the most in the league, the product of what Yoder called some inconsistent play on the offensive line. Shenandoah’s defense is tied for second in the ODAC in sacks (21).

“We’ve gotta make (Cobb) feel uncomfortable,” Yoder said, “and I think it also starts with the run defense though, because if we can make him one-dimensional and we know you’re throwing, you know that you’re throwing, you know that we know you’re throwing, yeah, we can make him uncomfortable. But we’re gonna have to do some things to get that done. And I think it also goes back to if our offense is firing on all cylinders, we’re probably making them be aggressive on offense to stay in the game.”

Shenandoah’s offense remains the ODAC’s most productive – the Hornets lead the conference in points per game (42.1) and total offense (514.5 ypg) – but hasn’t been the same passing juggernaut over the last two weeks that it was through the first half of the season.

Bauserman leads Division III in passing yards (3,093) and is third in passing touchdowns (33) but has failed to throw for more than 300 yards in either of the last two games. The junior threw for a season-low 272 yards against Apprentice last week, though he sat out the fourth quarter with a big lead and the Hornets’ rediscovered a running game that churned out 205 yards.

Hampden-Sydney, which Yoder said took measures to bolster its run defense in the offseason, ranks first in the ODAC in total defense (366.8 ypg) but ranks last in takeaways (nine) and is fifth in the seven-team conference in sacks (13).

“If we’re firing on all cylinders, we are gonna be fine,” Yoder said. “If we’re second-guessing ourselves and not trusting our first read and the O-line isn’t playing aggressively and the receivers aren’t getting separation, we’re in for a long day.”