WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team had a game plan in place and was already hard at work prepping for its would-be season opener against Methodist University in September when it learned that the Monarchs would not be making the trip from North Carolina to the Northern Shenandoah Valley due to the threat of Hurricane Dorian.
Two and a half months later, the Hornets finally get to put that game plan in place. Well, kind of.
Rather than going into the game essentially blind with nothing more than 2018 film to go off of, SU instead had a full season’s worth of data to pore over this week ahead of this afternoon’s season finale against Methodist at Shentel Stadium.
“You just get a better sense of who they are and who they want to be, and I’m sure it’s the same for them and us,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said of how the game plan for Methodist has changed since September. “We looked at our notes (from Week 1) pretty hard on what we liked, what we thought we liked going into that week of practice. Some of that stuff has fit and some of that stuff just isn’t who we are anymore at this point in the season, so we just kind of had to throw it out. Hopefully, we kept the good stuff.”
This weekend’s matchup is a stray from the norm, as it’s a season-ending, non-conference game taking place on a weekend when 32 of the nation’s best Division III teams will begin the NCAA playoffs.
Shenandoah (5-4) held its senior day last weekend before a home loss to Washington and Lee but views the Methodist (4-5) matchup as another day to celebrate that group of players who will compete in their final college football game. But there is also a game to be played, one that will either give the Hornets their third winning season in four years or Methodist its first non-losing season since 2014.
“They’re gonna be coming to give us everything they’ve got,” SU senior offensive tackle Daniel Small said of the Monarchs, who renewed an old USA South rivalry with SU last season and fell to the Hornets at home, 48-33. “Neither team has anything to lose. That’s what makes teams dangerous. That’s why we really have to approach this game and give them the respect that they deserve.”
Yoder called the Monarchs, who finished in sixth place in the USA South with a 3-4 conference record, an “extremely athletic” team on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, Methodist averages 21.9 points and 318 yards per game and features a pocket-style passer in sophomore Brandon Bullins, who has thrown for 1,797 yards, 12 touchdownsupfrontand nine interceptions this season. Bullins took over as the Monarchs’ quarterback in a season-opening loss to Guilford after incumbent starter Steve Keoni, who brings more mobility to the position, went down with an ankle injury.
Running back Vontre Howard, one of just two senior offensive starters for Methodist, has rushed for 613 yards and five touchdowns this season, and three Monarchs – Xzavier McNeil (59 receptions, 676 yards, four TDs), Jamaar Moore (422 yards, five TDs) and Kobe Praylow (407 yards, two TDs) – have at least 400 yards receiving.
“I think it’s a trap to say there’s one guy because when you play a team that’s this athletic, we’ve played teams before where we think we take away one guy and everybody else has a day. We’ve got to be really smart that way,” said Yoder, who referenced the effort defensively that the Hornets displayed in a win at Guilford at the end of September, which came on the heels of a loss to Bridgewater the week before.
“We went to Guilford and they have some really good offensive weapons and I thought defensively we played as hard as we did all year. We ran to the football really well, and they made some plays but nothing that was gonna win the game for them. That’s the type of day we’ve got to have. If we’ve got a day where we are flying around, playing fast and making tackles in space, then I like our chances.”
Methodist’s defense has been one of the most generous in the USA South this season and is allowing 28.8 points and 366.8 yards per contest. The Monarchs are giving up 214.7 yards rushing per game – SU’s offense, by comparison, has topped 74 yards rushing in a game just once over the past five contests – but they do lead the USA South in pass defense (152.1 yards allowed).
Shenandoah’s offense, which has battled inconsistency all season, will see freshman QB Chris Sonnenberg make his third straight start this weekend. An offense that figures to start just three seniors against Methodist has one more chance to put together a performance that could springboard that unit into the offseason.
“We just want to have a day,” Yoder said of an offense that is averaging 29.6 points and leads the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in passing (316.9 yards per game). “We’ve had some really good moments, we’ve had some really good stretches. We’ve started slow offensively the last couple weeks for a couple different reasons, so (there’s) a challenge of getting off to a good start. And that doesn’t necessarily mean scoring the first three drives, but we all know when we’re moving the football and we’re kind of steering the pace of the game. That’s what we want.
Yoder added that good offensive line play is a priority.
“There’s very few times the O-line plays well and we don’t have a good day,” Yoder said. “I obviously work with those guys, so I don’t want to just put it all on them, but if we have a bad day it’s usually a bad day all around because everything kind of feeds off that. So let’s have a great day upfront, let’s make really good decisions and let’s get the ball to the guys we know can make plays. … Let’s get those guys going because when those guys are going, we’re making plays.”