WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team is feeling good after back-to-back conference wins helped erase much of the sting from a Week 3 loss to Bridgewater in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener. The Hornets will find out just how good they actually are this weekend.
What will be one of SU’s toughest challenges yet this season awaits the Hornets in Ashland on Saturday, where they’ll clash with ODAC preseason favorite and conference unbeaten Randolph-Macon in a 1 p.m. contest at Day Field.
Shenandoah (3-1, 2-1 ODAC) has grown as a team in recent weeks during wins over Guilford and Southern Virginia, but Saturday’s meeting with the Yellow Jackets (4-1, 3-0) is a big step up in competition.
“Can we learn from our success and can we not think that we are something that we’re not right now?” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said of carrying a two-game winning streak into Saturday’s matchup. “I mean, Randolph-Macon has been the best team in the league. They earned that. They’ve earned that by winning and they always have an identity and that’s to run the football and to play-action pass you and to dominate the trenches. We’re gonna have to match that intensity. We’re gonna have to play our game and we’re gonna have to hit our shots. But if you want to be something, you’ve got to beat these teams.”
Though Guilford is struggling and Southern Virginia offered what Yoder said was one of the most “vanilla” defensive schemes Shenandoah (3-1, 2-1 ODAC) will see all season, the Hornets’ wins over both teams the past two weeks were tremendous steps in the right direction for a team trying to find an identity this season.
Shenandoah had what was at the time its most complete effort of the young season in a 26-7 road win at Guilford two weeks ago, and the Hornets took things a step further in last weekend’s 42-14 drubbing of Southern Virginia at home when they piled up 601 total yards and 509 through the air.
The wins were badly needed after the dud against Bridgewater, but now the Hornets have to perform under the label of a team that is playing good football.
“Coach Yoder’s biggest thing was like the hardest thing is performing good and doing it again,” senior linebacker Bernie Hayes said, “and so we did it again with Southern Virginia and now it’s even harder to do it, to keep consistency and everything like that. It’s easier to surprise somebody (by) playing good but it’s hard to be consistent, and showing it on film, and play good the next week.”
Shenandoah’s defense is allowing 340.5 yards per game over the last two games and is coming off a performance in which it stymied the ODAC’s leading rusher. The running game remains a focal point this week against Randolph-Macon, which is averaging 185 yards rushing per game, the second-best mark in the conference.
In last year’s meeting, a 45-14 Randolph-Macon rout in Winchester, the Yellow Jackets ran for 298 yards and six touchdowns against Shenandoah.
Hayes called the Yellow Jackets, who specialize in sustained drives and lead the ODAC in time of possession (33:18), the “most disciplined team in the ODAC.”
“They know what they want to do, they want to punch you in the mouth and keep doing it. And they know that other teams know that, and the fact that they keep doing it, it shows how great of a program that is,” said Hayes, who leads the Hornets with 24 tackles. “And of course they have a great running back in Tre Frederick. The thing I tell people is he disappears sometimes when you play against him. He could be right in front of you and if you blink your eyes he’s 20 yards behind you.”
Frederick (5-foot-9, 175 pounds) comes in averaging 99 yards per game – which ranks second in the ODAC behind Southern Virginia’s Akiva Wedge – and on the season has carried 104 times for 495 yards and a touchdown.
The fifth-year senior (Frederick played just one game in 2015) is the only Yellow Jacket to have three straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons and his 4,551 career rushing yards are an ODAC record.
“He’s just a dynamic running back,” Hornets linebacker Tyler Williams said. “You could see him in a gap and peek your head in the gap and the next thing you know he’s gone. He’s just very dynamic. He’s a fast back. He’s not gonna run people over but he’s a hard guy to catch.”
Both Hayes and Williams said the key for Shenandoah’s defense on Saturday would be to get Randolph-Macon out of its comfort zone and force freshman quarterback Presley Egbers – who took over as the starter in Week 4 – to throw the football.
Shenandoah’s offense rediscovered its own pass-happy style last week, as junior quarterback Ben Agostino threw for 509 yards and six touchdowns in what was a career performance for the first-year starter.
The Southern Virginia game was also the first time Shenandoah’s deep group of receivers really cut loose this season, as five pass-catchers – Casey Stewart, Jake Wallace, Brant Butler, Ethan Bigbee and Miles Moore – each had at least 78 yards receiving. Wallace, Butler and Bigbee each had two touchdown grabs in the win.
That performance, however, came against a defense that the Hornets knew wasn’t going to do anything exotic. The challenge gets tougher against a Randolph-Macon unit that ranks first in the ODAC in total defense (284.4 yards allowed per game) and pass defense (160).
“You think about last year, they came to our place and they (were more physical than) us and they closed down the space in the secondary and I think every 50-50 ball they made a play on it and we didn’t. We can’t win games like that,” Yoder said. “I think we’ve got to find a way to run it enough to make them respect that, enough to be effective. I don’t think we’re gonna run it all over them like maybe we did two weeks ago (against Guilford). I think we’ve got to get really, really efficient play from the quarterback and the receivers. I think it plays into our hands the fact that we’re kind of hitting our stride offensively. I do. But I think we’re gonna find a lot out about ourselves because we’re not gonna lead all the time. It’s easy to play when things are going well. It’s a lot harder to play when it’s not.”