WINCHESTER -- It was a performance that left Shenandoah University head football coach Scott Yoder saying “Hayden who?”
It was a reference, made in jest, to Shenandoah’s former record-setting quarterback Hayden Bauserman, which came minutes after current QB Ben Agostino put on a show against Southern Virginia University that was very Bauserman-esque.
Agostino, who through the first three games of the 2019 season played in a timeshare at quarterback with Ben Rhodenizer, took full control of the reins of the Hornets’ offense during Saturday night’s homecoming contest and lit up the Knights for 509 yards passing and six touchdowns as SU rolled to a 42-14 Old Dominion Athletic Conference win.
It was easily a career night for Agostino, who was making his third collegiate start.
“Lights out,” Hornets sophomore receiver Ethan Bigbee said of Agostino’s performance, which saw the junior complete 36 of 44 passes, an 81.8 percent mark. “He played really well. He was on the ball almost the whole game. You can really see the confidence in him just throwing the ball, just throwing week to week. He’s a guy that’s come a long way, I feel like, since camp, so I'm really proud of him and happy he’s my quarterback.”
Agostino’s big night keyed an impressive offensive showing in which Shenandoah (3-1, 2-1 ODAC) racked up 601 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per play, a school record.
Five SU receivers -- Casey Stewart (seven receptions for 136 yards), Jake Wallace (11 for 123 yards), Brant Butler (four for 83 yards), Bigbee (eight for 80 yards) and Miles Moore (two for 78 yards) -- had at least 78 yards receiving. Three of them -- Wallace, Butler and Bigbee -- had two touchdown catches, and all five caught at least one pass of 38 yards or more against the Knights (2-2, 1-2).
Shenandoah’s previous season-high for passing yards in a game was 325, and the Hornets were coming off easily their best rushing performance of the season in which they had 272 in a win over Guilford a week ago.
“We thought that the way (the Knights) ran their defense we’d have a lot of opportunities that we haven’t had against other teams in previous weeks. We just went out and executed as a team,” Agostino said.
“They play an old-school ODAC defense, 4-2-5, keeping the outside linebacker in the box, keeping six in the box. So going away from the 11th man, and over the game we saw a lot more deeper passes because we figured we could go over the top on them and our outside players were better than theirs.”
Lost in Shenandoah’s offensive explosion was another stellar defensive effort from a unit that seems like it’s started to figure things out after succumbing to big plays in the first two weeks. The Hornets held Southern Virginia to 316 yards, sacked quarterback Davis Pinkston twice, forced two turnovers and, most importantly, held Knights senior running back Akiva Wedge, who entered the game as the ODAC’s leading rusher, in check.
“We both feed off each other’s energy at the end of the day,” Hornets sophomore defensive end Jordan Rice, who had six tackles and 1.5 sacks, said of the offense and defense, “and when they’re killing it and we’re killing it, it’s just a beautiful thing.”
Wedge, who averaged 148.7 yards per game and 6.9 yards per carry in Southern Virginia’s first three contests, was held to 84 yards on 24 carries and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry against Shenandoah.
Most of Wedge’s yards came on runs of 11, 22 and 20 yards, and 17 of his 24 carries went for 2 yards or less, including seven for negative yardage, as the Hornets swarmed to the football all game long.
“When we play hard on defense, good things happen. And we played incredibly hard tonight,” Yoder said. “So kudos to our defense. I mean you can talk all about the offensive stuff, but our defense set the tone right from the beginning with the plan and how hard we played.”
Shenandoah’s first takeaway -- Pinkston’s fumble on the Knights’ opening drive that was forced and recovered by Hornets cornerback Shean Rheams at the Shenandoah 44-yard line -- set up SU’s first score of the night on its second possession. The Hornets were in the end zone five plays later when Butler made a spectacular leaping grab with a defender in his face to complete the 8-yard touchdown toss from Agostino.
It was the second straight week Shenandoah’s offense put together an early TD drive.
“That really just gets us going,” Bigbee said. “And we feed off each other, offense and the defense, so it was a huge pickup seeing them go and do their thing and us backing them right back up.”
Shenandoah broke a 7-7 tie early in the second quarter when Southern Virginia lost track of Bigbee in the back of the end zone on a fourth-down pass from the 2-yard line. Agostino’s third TD pass -- a 5-yarder to Wallace -- capped a 10-play, 81-yard drive right before halftime that put Shenandoah up 21-7.
Southern Virginia pulled back within a touchdown with a long scoring drive to start the third quarter, which ended with Pinkston’s second TD pass to Matthew Johansson. But the Hornets answered with Bigbee’s 40-yard touchdown catch three plays later and took all the drama out of the game with Agostino’s additional scoring tosses of 9 and 38 yards to Wallace and Butler in the fourth quarter.
“I think it was that, just getting into a good rhythm,” Agostino said of his big night. “And it helps when you know you’ve got guys who are making great catches in one-on-one plays. The offensive line played great all night, no sacks. They played absolutely lights out. And when the defense gives us the ball back in great situations, you can’t beat it.”
Shenandoah, which has won two straight, will put its momentum to the test next against Randolph-Macon (4-1, 3-0), the preseason ODAC favorite.
“I feel like we're really clicking on all cylinders right now,” Bigbee said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been this good at this point in the season, so it’s really good. We’re hitting our stride at a key time in the season and just really confident and hope for the best.”