WINCHESTER – A week ago, Shenandoah University’s football team was preparing for a struggling Hampden-Sydney squad that had lost four straight and only just squeaked by the Tigers with a 21-17 victory last weekend. Now the Hornets host what head coach Scott Yoder said is the hottest team in the ODAC.
Emory & Henry brings a four-game winning streak to Shentel Stadium for this afternoon’s conference match-up, posing a big challenge to a Shenandoah team trying to win back-to-back games for the second time this season.
“We have to play our best game and given that we came off a really close win, closer than we would’ve like to, we really need to step it up,” Hornets junior receiver Jake Wallace said on Wednesday. “I mean, we played a really good game; we played hard but it was an ugly win. We just have to step up in all aspects of the game and really hunker down for Emory & Henry.”
Shenandoah (4-2, 3-2 ODAC) likely will need to put up plenty of points against the Wasps (4-2, 3-1), who have scored 48 or more points in each of the last four games. Emory & Henry’s latest triumph came in the way of a 48-42 homecoming win over previous conference unbeaten Washington and Lee, a game in which the Wasps trailed by 14 in the fourth quarter before scoring three touchdowns in the final five minutes.
Led by 6-foot-6 receiver Derrick Yates and junior quarterback Hunter Taylor, Emory & Henry ranks second in the ODAC in scoring (41.7 points per game) and third in total offense (430 yards per game), and its 277 yards passing per game rank second only to Shenandoah.
“Their offense is tremendous,” said Hornets defensive back Mike Amobi. “I feel like they have really good play-calls, outstanding athletes. Their quarterback is a hard-nosed athlete. But that’s what we focus on. Everything we do we’re gonna battle them, so it’s gonna be fire versus fire. We expect hard hitting. We expect them to go all out, all their tricks. We expect them to do the same thing and (we’ll) just try to outmuscle them mentally, physically. That’s pretty much it. We try not to think too much of it; we’re just gonna play football and if they hit us, we hit back. It’s not something we’re gonna try to take too personally, it’s just a game that we really want to win.”
The Hornets, who are allowing 21.2 points and 378 yards per game, must find a way to slow down Yates, a matchup nightmare who has terrorized defenses to the tune of 50 receptions for 840 yards and 12 touchdowns through six games this season.
Yates, who has had multiple touchdown grabs in four straight games, caught 13 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns against W&L last week, including the game-winner on a 39-yard pass from Taylor as time expired.
In Emory & Henry’s 52-50 win over Shenandoah last season, Yates had eight catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns.
“You’ve got to have a plan for him and I think he’s kind of in that category of (Hampden-Sydney receiver) Major Morgan where you’re not gonna stop him. You’ve just got to make sure he doesn’t have a ‘wow’ day that just beats you single-handedly,” Yoder said of Yates. “And at the same time, you’ve got to think about it. They’re not a one-man show so if you do too much to him, they’re gonna rip you doing everything else. You’ve got to pick your spots and hopefully, you can affect them enough to where maybe they’re just off a little bit.”
Taylor, who lit up SU for six touchdown passes and rushed for 83 yards against the Hornets last season, has thrown for 1,380 yards this season and is a threat to run in the Wasps’ read-option game. Taylor is Emory & Henry’s second-leading rusher with 53 carries for 219 yards and four touchdowns.
Running back T.J. Tester leads the Wasps’ rushing attack with 474 yards and four scores, and junior receiver Gunner Griffith has complemented Yates with 32 receptions for 408 yards and three touchdowns.
Emory & Henry’s passing game will test a Shenandoah secondary that has been bitten by injuries in recent weeks and is allowing 219 yards through the air per game. The Hornets are tied for second in the ODAC with nine interceptions, and safety Nate Hill leads the conference with five picks.
“We’re aware that they have some tall athletes but we have a game plan that we’re gonna try to match that,” Amobi said. “We have other defensive backs that are ready to handle, ready to take that challenge against Yates and everything. But we’re all gonna work as a team. We don’t rely on one person. They’re gonna do their job and we’re just gonna have to do ours. The coaches made the game plan, so we’re just gonna go off of that.”
Yoder, who isn’t anticipating another 21-17 game today, said the offense needs to show more consistency than it’s showed over the last two weeks. After averaging 490.5 yards through the first four games, the Hornets’ offense is averaging just 299.5 over the last two contests and has seen its running game disappear since rushing for over 270 yards against Guilford on Sept. 28.
Hornets junior quarterback Ben Agostino leads the ODAC with 1,562 passing yards but SU coaches on Wednesday were mulling a change at the position that could once again give sophomore Ben Rhodenizer a larger role in SU’s offense.
Shenandoah senior receiver Casey Stewart agreed with his head coach that the Hornets need to put up points to keep up with Emory & Henry’s potent offense.
“Yes I do and I think we’ll have every opportunity to do that,” Stewart said. “We’ve simplified things as an offense for what we think they’re gonna run defensively. We’ve just got to figure out early on the game what their game plan defensively for us is because whatever they choose, that game plan could be what they’re going to stick to all game long. We’ve got to figure it out early on and just execute the plays that are called.”
Emory & Henry sits in the middle of the pack in the ODAC in scoring defense (24.2 points allowed) and total defense (392.8 yards), but the Wasps rank second in the conference with 16 takeaways and their starting defensive ends, senior Da’von Keith (eight sacks, nine tackles for loss) and sophomore Donovan Pinnix (five sacks), rank first and second in the league in sacks.
“They’re living in people’s backfields, just making negative plays – sacks, turnovers,” Yoder said. “Their team speed is excellent, and that’s not just in the secondary. Their linebackers run really well, D-line runs really well, safeties run really well. If they get out of position it’s not for long.”