Hornets set to clash with W&L with ODAC title on the line

Shenandoah University's Devontae Dunn (4), Daquan Pridget (29) and Nate Hill (39) celebrate during a victory over Bridgewater on Oct. 14. The Hornets host Washington and Lee on Saturday afternoon with an ODAC title on the line. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s path to its first Old Dominion Athletic Conference title veered a bit off course with a loss to Hampden-Sydney last week. The Hornets are not out of the running but now need outside help, and that help will mean nothing if Shenandoah doesn’t take care of business at home this weekend.

The Hornets have wrapped up their regular season with a matchup against Washington and Lee every season since joining the ODAC in 2012. Today’s 1 p.m. matchup at Shentel Stadium could be for the conference title and an NCAA Division III playoff berth.

W&L’s championship scenario is simple. Beat the Hornets (6-3, 3-2 ODAC) – which they’ve done in three straight meetings – on Saturday and the Generals (7-2, 4-1) are ODAC champs. Shenandoah needs a win plus a Randolph-Macon victory over Hampden-Sydney to claim the conference crown.

“Coach (Scott) Yoder emphasizes every week that we’re the only game in town,” Hornets junior linebacker Kyle Dexter said, “so just worrying about ourselves instead of the external environment. I think that’s what we’re trying to do and that’s how practice has been the last couple weeks. We’re the only team that matters right now and we have to beat one team at a time, go one game at a time.”

Saturday’s showdown will feature two of Division III’s most prolific offenses, and polar opposites at that. Shenandoah’s fast-paced spread attack boasts the nation’s third-ranked passing offense (400.1 yards per game), while Washington and Lee’s option offense is second in the nation in rushing (416.6 ypg).

“As much as they’re, system-wise, different than us, I think we’re the same,” Yoder said. “When they have it firing on all cylinders, they’re unstoppable. They really are unstoppable. And that’s how I’ve felt about us at times this year. And when do we get in trouble? When we stop ourselves. And when do they get in trouble? When they put the ball on the ground or they take a negative play, there’s just a lull in the game where maybe they’re not firing on all cylinders. So that’s the key, can we make those lulls in their game go longer?”

Few defenses have been able to do that against the Generals, who have won five straight games since losing its ODAC opener to Emory & Henry on Sept. 30. Shenandoah enters the game allowing a conference-worst 445.2 yards per game, including 223.6 yards rushing.

A banged up Generals offense has kept reloading despite injuries. Freshman running back Josh Breece stepped into a starting role after an injury to senior Walker Brand four games into the season and leads the ODAC with 1,376 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Quarterbacks Drew Richardson and Trey Laughlin have split time after an injury to senior Matt Sgro.

In all, nine Generals have at least 18 carries this season, though Breece has 103 more carries than the team’s second-leading rusher, junior Collin Sherman (578 yards).

“They’re just so efficient and so many people can beat you, so many different ways to do it,” Yoder said. “What do you have to do? You have to get off blocks. You have to talk well. You have to be very sound in how you line up. And they still are gonna score 35 to 40 points a game.”

If any team can keep pace with W&L, it’s Shenandoah. The Hornets are averaging 42.2 points per game, tops in the ODAC, though they are still trying to rediscover the full 60 minutes of consistency they had on offense through the season’s first half.

Finding that again on Saturday will be a challenge against what Yoder called “the best team defense I’ve seen.” Washington and Lee is allowing 23.2 points and 379.9 yards per game, second-best in the ODAC in both categories, and has the league’s best rush defense.

The Generals do rank sixth out of seven teams in the conference in passing defense (257.8 ypg) but lead the ODAC in sacks (26) and interceptions (14).

“I think one of the things about their defense is on the underneath throws they’re gonna swarm to the ball,” said Hornets junior quarterback Hayden Bauserman, who leads Division III in passing yards (3,494) and is tied for second in the nation with 39 touchdown passes. “It’s not gonna be four or five guys running after the ball, it’s gonna be 11 guys going after the football. So we’re gonna have to match that intensity and kind of figure out a way to beat their system.

“They’re really aggressive,” he added. “I think they play 10 or 11 guys up front, different guys that they rotate in, so all of them are pretty fresh when they come in and things like that. They’re quick. They’re relentless. They’re not gonna sit back and give up if they get stoned. They’re gonna keep fighting and keep coming after the ball.”