WINCHESTER — Pencil another name into Shenandoah University’s ongoing battle for snaps at the quarterback position.
After sophomore Ben Rhodenizer and junior Ben Agostino spent nearly all preseason and much of the regular season jockeying for supremacy in what head coach Scott Yoder tabbed in late August a “two-horse race” for the starting quarterback spot, freshman Chris Sonnenberg’s name was tossed in the ring with his lengthy appearance in Saturday’s 41-31 loss to Emory & Henry.
With Shenandoah’s offense needing a spark for the second week in a row, Sonnenberg was thrust into action to start SU’s fourth offensive series late in the first quarter with the Hornets trailing 17-0. He finished out the rest of the game, completing 34 of 62 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions.
Yoder said after the game that Rhodenizer — who made his first start since the opener and the second of his college career — was hampered by a foot injury that limited the sophomore’s mobility, something that is a big part of his game. Rhodenizer sought the sidelines at less than full speed on at least two scrambles during Saturday’s game, and he was walking with a slight limp when the team returned to the field after halftime.
Rhodenizer was pulled after completing just 3 of 9 passes for 22 yards on three mostly ineffective Shenandoah drives. Yoder said after the game that Agostino, who had started the previous five games and led the ODAC in passing yards entering Saturday, is healthy. Agostino did not play against the Wasps.
“Chris is a good football player. That’s why we recruited him,” Yoder said. “He’s done really well in practice, he’s shown some good things. It’s not like he played outside of his mind and we had never seen this before. There were some things we left on the table and obviously we can coach a better game knowing if he’s gonna be our guy, which I obviously don’t know right now. I’m proud of him.”
Sonnenberg’s appearance was a bit of a surprise. The freshman’s name was never mentioned in the preseason as a serious contender in what was touted as a three-man competition between Agostino, Rhodenizer and junior James McPhillips (who is no longer listed on SU’s roster), and Sonnenberg’s only collegiate action before Saturday came late in a win over Guilford one month ago, a game in which he did not attempt a pass.
On Saturday’s depth chart, Agostino was listed as the No. 2 QB. Yoder said it was not in the game plan to put Rhodenizer on such a short leash on Saturday, adding that the sophomore’s inability to take full advantage of his mobility against an aggressive Wasp defense factored into the change.
Sonnenberg, a Bristow native and graduate of Patriot High, said he wasn’t caught off-guard by what appeared from the outside to be a curveball from SU’s coaching staff.
“I wasn’t really surprised, actually. The coaches have been hinting at it all week, like ‘Hey, your time might come,’” Sonnenberg said. “… When the time comes I’ve got to perform, I’ve got to do my one-eleventh to make sure that what I’m doing is gonna make the team move forward.”
Sonnenberg, who played behind a pieced-together offensive line that at one point featured two freshmen, wasn’t asked to make a lot of downfield throws and benefitted from the short-passing game that included a lot of screens and drag routes, though that isn’t out of the ordinary for SU’s offense.
Sonnenberg, who said he was nervous coming out for his first drive, threw four interceptions in the second half, including one on a pass that was tipped over the middle, one on a deep third-down throw that ultimately served the same function as a 32-yard punt and one on a desperation heave on the final play of the game.
Sonnenberg’s third interception of the game, on a screen pass to running back Mario Wisdom, was intercepted and returned 80 yards for a touchdown that put Emory & Henry up 41-24 with 7:50 left and helped knock the rest of the air out of SU’s comeback bid.
Prior to that untimely pick-six, Sonnenberg at one point completed 13 of 19 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown on back-to-back touchdown drives in the third quarter that pulled Shenandoah within 31-24.
“I feel he played pretty good,” SU freshman running back Sam Adams said. “He looked comfortable in the pocket, looked comfortable throwing the ball.”
BACK ON TRACK: A sluggish Shenandoah running game finally rediscovered its legs against E&H, churning out 153 yards on 29 carries for an average of 5.3 yards per rush. SU’s running backs, who had accounted for just one rushing touchdown in the previous three games, scored twice against the Wasps.
Shenandoah’s first TD of the game, which came with SU trailing 24-0 in the second quarter, came via a 59-yard run by Wisdom (nine carries, 75 yards). That run alone nearly matched the Hornets’ entire rushing output from the previous two games (69 yards).
Adams, who led SU with 95 yards rushing on 12 carries, added a 17-yard touchdown run — the first of his career — in the third quarter in which he spun out of a tackle just inside the 10-yard line before leaving his feet and soaring over the goal line.
“The way they were playing us, we had to take advantage of what they were giving us,” Yoder said. “We couldn’t allow them to play that way and we finally found the run game to do it.”
SU made some tweaks to its running back rotation, moving sophomore Rashadeen Byrd Jr. — last year’s leading rusher — down to third on the depth chart. Byrd, who was averaging just 2.3 yards per carry over the previous three games, did not play on Saturday but did go through pregame warmups with the second-team offense.
Adams said SU’s running backs showed improved eye discipline on Saturday and did a good job communicating what each was seeing on the sidelines between plays and offensive series. The Hornets had five runs of 15 yards or more, including two of 40-plus yards.
“The running backs practiced really hard,” said Adams, who also caught eight passes for 48 yards in the loss. “We had a couple run plays that were the main focus for this week and we just executed it every time we got the chance. We watched a lot of film, saw how the defense played and we just played off of what we did. If they made mistakes we made a play and stepped up from that.”
SPECIAL TEAMS SEESAW: In a game that Yoder called a collective “roller coaster ride,” special teams was its own mixed bag of ups and downs for SU on Saturday.
Shenandoah was brilliant on kickoff returns — Butler and Adams combined to average 27.6 yards per return — and started at its own 40 or better four times after an E&H score. The Hornets also recovered an onside kick in the fourth quarter, and Drew Geyer made a 27-yard field goal late in the first half.
But SU also botched a snap on its second punt attempt of the day as the ball skipped back to punter Patrick Ritchie, who couldn’t corral the ball before E&H’s Da’von Keith scooped it up and raced 40 yards to the end zone for the game’s first touchdown. Later in the first half, the Hornets tried a fake punt that was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and set up a short field that the Wasps turned into a touchdown and a 24-0 lead.
The Hornets also committed personal fouls after two kickoffs (one was offset by an Emory & Henry personal foul) and had a big return to open the game wiped out by an illegal blindside block.
“Way too many mistakes to win a football game, from turnovers to penalties to just lack of execution,” said Yoder, whose team committed five turnovers and 10 penalties for 109 yards. “We’ve got a lot of stuff to clean up.”