WINCHESTER -- Shenandoah University’s football team was rolling after back-to-back conference wins heading into last weekend’s road game at Randolph-Macon. A matchup with the defending Old Dominion Athletic Conference Yellow Jackets on Saturday showed the Hornets need to be better on game day in order to knock off the best the ODAC has to offer.
“That’s a hard pill to swallow because we do believe talent-wise that we can compete with anyone,” Hornets junior quarterback Ben Agostino said on Wednesday, “but as a team we have to take those growing pains as they come and try our best to learn from them.”
Shenandoah head coach Scott Yoder said Saturday’s outcome didn’t prove that the Hornets have a ways to go before they can hang with the teams in the ODAC. The 35-14 loss was instead the product of poor ball security which led to five Shenandoah turnovers and a minus-four turnover margin.
“When you put those things together you’re not gonna beat a quality ODAC team being minus-four and giving it away five times. It doesn’t matter who you play,” Yoder said. “Now, do you say if you erase those you magically beat them? No, we’ve got to make more plays. But we had our opportunities. For as poorly as we played at times giving the ball away, we had our opportunities and we didn’t cash in and we got the result that we deserved for how we played Saturday.”
That’s not to say there weren’t bright spots. Despite three first-half turnovers, Shenandoah (3-2, 2-2 ODAC) trailed Randolph-Macon just 7-0 at halftime and only truly started to tumble out of striking distance when a third-quarter fumble was recovered by the Yellow Jackets in the end zone to stretch R-MC’s lead to 21-7.
Yoder said it was a testament to SU’s defensive effort that the Hornets were able to keep it a one-score game in the first half, adding that they “asked too much” of that defense in the second half as R-MC’s offensive snap count rose. Senior defensive tackle Randy Oliver said the final stats -- Randolph-Macon had 302 yards rushing and averaged over five yards per carry -- were misleading in regard to the way Shenandoah’s defense performed.
“Defensively I think we actually took a step in the right direction considering how well we played in the first half,” Oliver said. “Yeah they put up that many points on us but I don’t think the score indicates how hard we played on the defensive side.”
Shenandoah’s defense effort -- Oliver admitted the Hornets had some lapses on an R-MC touchdown drive to start the second half and had a couple instances where they didn’t come up with a “crucial” stop -- wasn’t enough to overcome three Agostino interceptions and two fumbles.
“I think we’ve just got to learn to be more resilient on the offensive side of the ball,” said Agostino, who had thrown just one interception through the first four games and was coming off a career day against Southern Virginia a week before. “If we have a couple drives that we don’t score on, that doesn’t mean you quit, it doesn’t mean you get your head down. That starts with me as the quarterback. And playing a whole 60 minutes. Even in the Southern Virginia game you could go back to points in the game where we could’ve been even more efficient, and that applies when you play a team like Southern Virginia and an ODAC champ and favorite like Randolph-Macon.”
RUNNING MILD: Shenandoah’s running game piled up 272 yards against Guilford, the team’s most in a game since 2015, but has since churned out just 125 yards over the past two games.
Game flow and opposing defensive schemes have influenced those numbers. Against Southern Virginia, Shenandoah felt the Knights were vanilla enough defensively that they could be had through the air, and Agostino passed for over 500 yards.
On Saturday against Randolph-Macon, the Hornets again felt like it was to their advantage to throw the football, choosing to challenge the Yellow Jackets on the perimeter rather than running right at them. SU ran the ball 17 times last weekend but mustered only 33 yards, a meager 1.9 yards per carry. Agostino, not exactly known as a dual-threat, led SU with 14 yards rushing on four carries.
“We felt like the best way to beat them and attack their defense was through passing the football, and we weren’t efficient enough passing the football,” said Agostino, who completed 23 of 44 passes for 259 yards. “Coaches are always finding ways to improve our efficiency running the football and we’re gonna keep going at it. We have some really talented running backs.”
Shenandoah, which has shown the ability to effectively lean pass or run depending on the opponent this season, next gets a Hampden-Sydney defense that is allowing 195.7 yards rushing per game, the second-worst mark in the ODAC.
“We’ve just got to get back to us, and that’s throwing, decisions, screens, running the football. Just play nasty on the O-line,” Yoder said. “That’s just what we’ve got to get back to, is being us. We got punched in the mouth and let’s just get up and go do what we do.”
INJURY REPORT: Yoder said cornerback Shean Rheams will be unavailable for a “couple weeks” due to stress fractures in his shin. Yoder added that Rheams had been playing through pain but was told by doctors he needed to shut it down for a few weeks.
Rheams’ injury is another blow to an SU secondary that is already without senior safety T.J. Heflin, whose injury prompted some shuffling that moved Rheams into a starting role.
“They’re moving some guys around,” Yoder said, “but if you think about it, Keyshawn Wilder is a freshman who’s been playing more and more every week just because he’s earning the time. Now he’s gonna have an even bigger role. Trammel Anthony has played more and more every week. (Mike) Amobi’s playing well, (Daquan) Pridget’s playing well, Nate Hill is playing well. It’s October football, we’ve got to make some adjustments and go with our best.”