WINCHESTER – After testing itself, and falling short, against one of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s best last weekend, Shenandoah University’s football team will look to get back on track against a scuffling Hampden-Sydney squad today.
The Tigers, picked third in the ODAC’s preseason poll, have tumbled quickly to the bottom of the pile with four straight losses to open conference play. A matchup with a wounded team that has lost its last three games by an average of 34 points could be just what Shenandoah needs to bounce back from a 35-14 loss to defending ODAC champ Randolph-Macon, but the Hornets are wary of a Hampden-Sydney team that holds a 5-2 record all-time in the series and had won four straight against SU before the 2018 season.
“As it’s been with Southern Virginia, as it was with Randolph-Macon, as it will be Hampden-Sydney and going forward, the focus is on us,” Hornets quarterback Ben Agostino said on Wednesday. “We can look into their record and try to figure out why (the Tigers are struggling) but that’s really not gonna help us win the game because they’re gonna come out, they’re gonna be a disciplined, well-coached team. And they have a history of beating up on us in Farmville. It has to be a Shenandoah focus. We’ve got to focus on ourselves because they’re gonna come out and they’re gonna play with their hair on fire because of the situation that they’re in. We’ve got to be up for the challenge and we can’t take anything lightly.”
Turnovers appear to be the biggest problem for Hampden-Sydney (1-5, 0-4 ODAC), which fell to Bridgewater 51-7 last week and enters Saturday’s game with 18 turnovers and a minus-10 turnover margin, easily the worst mark in the conference.
Senior quarterback Clay Vick, a first-year starter who leads the ODAC in passing yards (1,442) while attempting 43.5 passes per game, has thrown 16 interceptions over the past five games and has been sacked 12 times this season.
For a Shenandoah (3-2, 2-2) defense allowing 388.2 yards per game and that has 11 takeaways, the game plan calls for making Vick uncomfortable in the pocket.
“And that doesn’t mean just straight-out pressure him,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said. “If he gets into a rhythm and they can run and they can throw and they’re moving the football, he’s gonna be comfortable. It’s not just defense, too. Offensively, if we come out of the gate firing on all cylinders and he looks across and says ‘OK, well I’ve got to match this’ – it’s the whole team approach. But no doubt, we want to make him uncomfortable. They’ve got good perimeter targets. They’ve got good athletes they get the ball to in a variety of ways, so we just want to make things as uncomfortable for him as possible because you don’t want him getting on track.”
Senior receiver Major Morgan is a veteran of Hampden-Sydney’s offense and leads the team with 41 receptions for 519 yards. He topped 1,000 yards in 2018 – and was named first-team All-ODAC at season’s end – and has 25 career touchdown receptions, though Morgan has been held out of the end zone through six games this season.
Morgan is one of four Tiger receivers to have at least 24 receptions this year, as Hampden-Sydney’s passing game shoulders much of the load for an offense that ranks last in the ODAC in scoring (18 points per game), total yards (310.8 per game) and rushing (65.7).
“They’re still very Hampden-Sydney-esque,” Yoder said. “They’re gonna be a little intricate on offense. You know what they want to do but how they get there is always different in each game. And they’re explosive. They’ve got good, talented athletes on both sides of the ball.”
The Tigers’ defense to this point hasn’t been as stout as a Randolph-Macon unit that held Shenandoah to season-lows in total yards (292) and rushing yards (33) last weekend.
Hampden-Sydney ranks seventh in the nine-team conference in scoring defense (38.5 ppg) and total defense (454.7), and its eight takeaways are tied for the ODAC’s lowest total, though the Tigers are tied with SU for third with seven interceptions. The Tigers are allowing 50 points per game over their past three contests.
H-SC linebackers Griffin Davis (54 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, one interception) and Brendan Weinberg (49 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, one sack, two interceptions) both rank in the top five in the conference in total tackles.
“They went back to their 3-3 stack, which is what they ran, I would say, three or four years ago,” Yoder said. “We’re used to it, we just haven’t seen it in a while. They’ve got some really good linebackers, I think, that fit into their system. It’s nothing incredibly mind-blowing but it does mess with your run game just because of where the guys are lined up and because they can bring extra rushers from anywhere. Their linebackers are pretty good. They’ve got some young guys in the secondary that I think if we can put them in some tough X and O positions, it could be advantage us. But like I said, we’ve got to get back to us offensively coming off the ball, playing fast, getting after people in our way. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The Hornets weren’t running at peak efficiency against Randolph-Macon last week and turned the football over five times in the loss. But Shenandoah – which features a deep receiving corps led by Casey Stewart (35 receptions for 574 yards and three touchdowns) and Jake Wallace (37 catches for 369 yards and two TDs) – is just two weeks removed from blitzing Southern Virginia for 602 total yards and has been the ODAC’s most productive passing offense (306 yards per game) once again this season.
“We’ve been focusing this week on kind of maybe taking a step back and simplifying but sharpening the things that we’re good at, the core concepts that we’ve practiced since Day 1 of camp and just getting really sharp and really good at that,” said Agostino, who has passed for 1,352 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. “I think that’s a key to victory.”