WINCHESTER – Game planning against Washington and Lee in past seasons meant most of the defense’s attention was spent zeroed in on the Generals’ running game while being wary of a minimalist passing approach that could burn you if sold out too hard against the run. That’s no longer the case as Shenandoah University’s football team gets set to host W&L in its Old Dominion Athletic Conference finale this afternoon.
The Generals still sport the ODAC’s premier rushing attack this season – they rank fifth nationally with 312.7 yards on the ground per game – but their passing game has become more than an occasional sneak attack to catch opposing defenses napping.
W&L still ranks last in the conference in passing offense but its 131.6 yards through the air per game are a major leap for a team that hasn’t averaged more than 88 yards passing per contest since 2011. In last season’s meeting, a 27-24 SU win in overtime, the Generals didn’t complete a pass on seven attempts.
“They are a little bit more efficient in the pass game,” said SU head coach Scott Yoder, whose team is coming off a late-season bye week. “Where before they’d throw four or five passes (per game) that maybe get you on two for touchdowns because you’re so concentrated (on the run), they will come out attacking you with the pass game. Not in the way we do but first play against Emory & Henry (on Oct. 19) they throw a 70-yard touchdown pass. They’re looking for it. If you’re not gonna respect it they’re gonna hurt you with it.”
An improved W&L passing game adds to the obstacle Shenandoah (5-3, 4-3 ODAC) must overcome as it searches for its third winning season in the past four years and its first winning ODAC record since 2016, feats that the Hornets would achieve with a win this weekend.
In a rarity for the Generals’ option-based offense, junior receiver Montgomery Owen is putting up big numbers this season and is the ODAC’s fourth-leading receiver with 821 yards and eight touchdowns while averaging 26.5 yards per reception.
Generals sophomore quarterback Jack Pollard, also the team’s second-leading rusher, has completed 30 of 60 passes for 796 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions, and he’s 104 yards shy of becoming the first W&L QB to reach the 900-yard passing mark since 2011.
Yoder said W&L (5-4, 4-3) was using a rotation at quarterback early in the season before settling on Pollard, who has rushed for 436 yards and four touchdowns as the Generals have used more designed quarterback runs in addition to the option.
“Their guy can throw it. He can really throw it,” Yoder said of Pollard. “Before it was like if (the receiver) was open (they're) gonna get it to him. Now, I mean he can throw a 10-yard out on a dime if he needs to. They’re not asking him to do it 15 times a game but they will throw when it’s there, where before it was kind of like 'We’re gonna run and let me hit you for a big one.' But they’re making a ton of big plays, and you know how hard it is to defend them anyway. Now you think about oh, by the way, stop the run but you’ve got to worry about this. It gives a lot of one-on-ones to your defensive backs. We’re gonna have to make some plays.”
And there’s always the Generals’ running game to worry about. Josh Breece, a junior who has been one of the most productive running backs in the ODAC over the past three seasons, has rushed 97 times for 615 yards and seven touchdowns this fall. He paces a list of five Generals who have rushed for at least 330 yards this season.
“They’re just a very physical team,” Hornets junior defensive back/linebacker Trammel Anthony said. “That’s just who they’ve always been, especially when they run the ball as much as they do. I’m pretty sure that’s all they do in practice. They’re used to beating up on people. That’s gonna be a big deal coming into this next game is our mental toughness and our physicality.”
In last season’s meeting, Shenandoah put forth one of its best defensive efforts of the season while holding W&L to 307 yards of offense, all rushing. SU’s coaches have referred to that performance as a springboard for what has been an improved defense this season that is allowing 24.9 points and 406.5 yards per game.
That defense has kept SU in games this season while the offense shuffled through a list of quarterbacks. The Hornets most recently handed the reins of the offense to freshman QB Chris Sonnenberg, who will make his second career start after throwing for 393 yards and six touchdowns in a win over Ferrum two weeks ago.
Saturday’s matchup will pit Shenandoah’s ODAC-leading passing game (323.6 yards per game) – led by Casey Stewart, the league’s receiving leader who’s averaging 114.3 yards per game – against a Generals squad that ranks last in the conference in pass defense (273.2 yards allowed per game).
W&L does boast the league’s best rush defense – opposing offenses are averaging just 95.7 yards per game on the ground – and is third in the ODAC in scoring defense (22.6 points per game) and total defense (368.9). The Generals also have 27 sacks, the second-most in the conference.
Hornets sophomore receiver Ethan Bigbee said SU needs to match Washington and Lee’s physicality and focus on going north and south as opposed to side-to-side to move the football effectively against the Generals.
“Defensive-wise they are always fast to rally around the ball,” Bigbee said. “I wouldn’t say they have one outstanding player, more that they have a big cohesive unit that works very well together. It seems like they always know what the other person is doing. They’re always on the same page and it makes it really hard to find flaws in their defense because they just have so little, because they’re very well-coached, a very disciplined defense. Scheme-wise it’s hard to find certain things that we can really exploit but i know that we are looking to attack certain areas and we do have some game plan in mind that we feel like we can expand on. It's gonna be a challenge for sure, just because of how cohesive they are.”