WINCHESTER -- The Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s winningest football coach ended his career with one final victory on Saturday evening.
Bridgewater head coach Michael Clark, who will step down after 26 seasons with the Eagles and 41 as a collegiate coach, earned win No. 167 with BC’s 22-14 victory over Shenandoah University in the pandemic-shortened, spring season finale on Saturday at SU’s Shentel Stadium.
The Eagles returned two first-quarter interceptions for touchdowns to take a 15-0 lead, got a crucial scoring drive in the third quarter from an offense decimated by injuries and sealed the win with a third interception with 1:14 to play. The victory, fittingly, followed what Clark said has long been his coaching philosophy with the Eagles.
“I know it’s old school,” he said on the Shentel Stadium turf after the win, “but 26 years ago when I got there I said, ‘Play great defense, don’t turn the ball over, try to gain an advantage in the kicking game and you’ll always have a chance to win in the fourth quarter.’ I believe that it kind of maybe showed up here a little bit tonight.”
Saturday’s ODAC game was the second head-to-head meeting in a week’s time and the third between the two teams in the six-week spring season. Unfortunately for Shenandoah coach Scott Yoder and the Hornets, SU’s offense was left sputtering most of Saturday evening just over a week after the Hornets (1-4) picked up their lone win of the season at Bridgewater on March 26.
The Hornets, who again were prompted to make a midgame quarterback switch, outgained Bridgewater 325-210 in Saturday’s rubber match but committed three costly turnovers, were 5 of 17 on third downs and 2-for-4 in the red zone and failed to establish the running game, spoiling a solid showing from a Shenandoah defense that allowed just seven points in the loss.
“I think I was disappointed most in, certainly the turnovers, but for a good chunk of the first half we did not execute our offense in any way, shape or form the way we had seven days ago or in practice,” said Yoder, who added that the defense played well and special teams gave SU a spark. “We have to find a way to execute our offense for 60 minutes to give ourselves a chance.”
The Eagles (3-2), who were missing their top two quarterbacks in the finale while also dealing with injuries along the offensive line, knew entering Round 3 with Shenandoah that they’d need to generate points through their defense and special teams, Clark said. Bridgewater’s defense rose to that challenge.
Freshman cornerback Jordan Burden put Bridgewater on the board with 2:51 left in the first quarter, returning an interception for a touchdown after a pass from Shenandoah quarterback Chris Sonnenberg went through Caleb Reedy’s hands on a quick slant.
On the next possession, Sonnenberg, who was pulled in favor of fellow sophomore Zack Mathis later in the first half, threw a third-down pass into traffic. It was picked by senior defensive end Da’Sean Davis, who returned the interception 30 yards for a TD that helped give the Eagles a 15-0 lead late in the first quarter.
“The first (interception) was (one that) maybe 90% of the time that’s a catch and it goes through our hands and it goes to them. That’s football, that stuff’s gonna happen,” Yoder said. “But you can’t spot somebody 14 points, especially under the circumstances that we have right now.”
Shenandoah’s defense was stout most of the night against a Bridgewater offense quarterbacked by third-stringer Kenneth McCray, who had not seen any action this spring until Saturday. The defense and a 19-yard punt return by freshman Yuri Smaltz set up the Hornets' first TD of the evening.
Starting at the Bridgewater 25, Mathis (18-for-25 passing, 196 yards) connected with sophomore Bryar Wheeler on second down for a 24-yard pass to the Eagles’ 1-yard line, and running back Rashadeen Byrd Jr. plowed into the end zone on the next play to cut into BC’s lead.
Following a Bridgewater three-and-out to start the second half, the Hornets put together their best drive of the game, a 13-play, 72-yard march that included a pair of fourth-down conversions and ended with Byrd’s 6-yard touchdown run that pulled SU within 15-14.
An Eagles offense that was reined in most of the night produced when it mattered, though. On the ensuing drive, Bridgewater covered 65 yards on just five plays -- including a 43-yard run by senior tailback Demetreus Jalepes (16 carries, 100 yards) -- and widened the lead to 22-15 with receiver Viante Tucker’s 15-yard TD run on a jet sweep.
“We knew offense was gonna be a struggle, not just because of (the quarterback injuries) but because of what we were doing with the offensive line. We were down some kids (there) too,” Clark said. “But the one time our offense needed a big drive, we got it.”
That third-quarter scoring drive was the lone blemish for a Shenandoah defense that held Bridgewater to its lowest yardage output of the season, tallied three sacks and limited the Eagles to 5-of-13 on third down.
“We knew going in what they were gonna do,” said Hornets senior linebacker Jack Swope, who had a team-high 10 tackles and 2.5 sacks. “And we played them three times, so it wasn’t a surprise after two games. We stopped the inside zone (and) they started trying to get outside of us. We didn't really change anything up after halftime. We pretty much played the same coverage and the same front the whole way through. I think we did a good job of stopping what we planned on stopping.”
Shenandoah’s offense had a chance to potentially tie the game midway through the fourth quarter, but a lengthy drive ended on downs at the Bridgewater 2 with 8:31 left.
A defensive stop gave the Hornets’ offense one more shot, but Mathis’ second-down pass from the Bridgewater 20 was intercepted by Eagles linebacker Isaiah Farmer with 1:14 to play.
“We did not execute as well as we should’ve,” Yoder said. “A lot of dropped passes, some missed blocks, some missed opportunities. Those are the differences between scoring and keeping a drive going and being forced off the field. They made some adjustments like we knew they would. Nothing really surprised us but it was more that we didn’t execute the plays that we needed to at the times we needed to. It’s really frustrating and disappointing, and I know our players feel that way.”
Conversely, it was a fine way to go out for Clark, who will turn the program over to offensive coordinator Scott Lemn.
“We’ve got a great program here that I think has a chance to get better,” Clark said. “The reboot that’s gonna happen all throughout college football next fall, I think it’s better off in the hands of young energy and it’s gonna be their statement and not my swan song. I’ll be their biggest fan. It hasn’t hit me yet but I’m comfortable with the decision I made.”