WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s running backs expected to take on a larger role in the offense heading into the 2019 college football season, and last weekend’s opener at North Carolina Wesleyan showed just how ready the Hornets’ tailbacks were to tote more of the load.
Running backs Rashadeen Byrd Jr. and Mario Wisdom combined to score all five of SU’s touchdowns in the Hornets’ 35-19 win over the Bishops. Each scored a pair of TDs on the ground while Byrd also added a receiving touchdown.
The Hornets’ four rushing touchdowns were the second-most SU has scored in a game and already puts Shenandoah a third of the way to matching its rushing touchdown total from a season ago.
“It started in practice,” Byrd said Wednesday of the tailbacks’ production in the opener. “The way that Mario and I and the other running backs look at it is when we get within 30 yards of the end zone and they trust the running backs with the ball, we have to score. There’s no gray areas. We need to get in the end zone, especially if they put it in our hands. We want our receivers to score too, but at the running back position, if we get the ball and we have an opportunity to score from 30 yards out, we need to get it done.”
Such scoring production on the ground is a bit of a different look from a Shenandoah offense that saw former quarterback Hayden Bauserman throw 132 touchdown passes over the previous four seasons. Saturday’s performance could be a glimpse of the Hornets’ return to a more balanced offensive attack in 2019.
Shenandoah finished the day with 178 yards rushing on 37 carries (an average of 4.8 yards per rush) among its 432 yards of total offense.
Wisdom carried 14 times for 50 yards and helped create some distance between SU and N.C. Wesleyan with a powerful 16-yard touchdown run on a third-and-3 play early in the fourth quarter that gave the Hornets a 28-19 lead.
Byrd carried 11 times for 31 yards and scored twice on a pair of short TD runs in the second quarter. He also caught four passes for 30 yards.
“We’ve got some great backs and you’re gonna see more of them this week,” said head coach Scott Yoder, whose team hosts Bridgewater on Saturday. “Besides his touchdowns, (Byrd) had a couple runs on our sideline. We threw it out there on a swing (pass) and he broke a tackle, made another guy miss and picked up 16 yards when anybody else would’ve had three. And Mario had the, it wasn’t the game-winning touchdown, but we’re up 21-19 and it was third-and-3 and we gave it to him and he broke like four tackles. The whole team was just, around a play like that, just gets so excited. Those guys bring so much to the table and I thought our O-line did a really nice job and created some creases and those guys broke some tackles.”
Sophomore quarterback Ben Rhodenizer bolstered Shenandoah’s yards-per-carry average with a 50-yard run in the first half, and he finished the day with a team-high 79 yards rushing on eight carries. His mobility adds an element to Shenandoah’s offense that wasn’t there in previous seasons.
“We’re still in this thing about what are we really gonna be? I mean I think you saw a little taste of we’re not used to the quarterback running around here,” Yoder said. “That brought something to us that we haven’t had in a while. … That ability to create on the ground when something isn’t the way it was drawn up to be is big for both (fellow quarterback Ben) Agostino and Rhodey and our offense.”
QUARTERBACK CAROUSEL: Rhodenizer made his first career start last week, emerging in time for the opener as 1A in what has been a close quarterback battle since the start of preseason camp. Yoder said on Wednesday that Agostino, who entered Saturday’s game late in the second quarter and played most of the second half, would make his first career start against Bridgewater this week.
Agostino completed 19 of 28 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown against N.C. Wesleyan and quarterbacked a pair of scoring drives that helped Shenandoah stave off a Bishops rally in the fourth quarter.
Rhodenizer, who said he played a drive in the second half, was the quarterback during the Hornets’ first three scoring drives of the game in the second quarter and ended up completing 13 of 19 passes for 72 yards and an interception.
Yoder, who has noted on a couple of occasions that there is no planned QB rotation in place, said Wednesday that SU’s coaches wanted both to get action in last weekend’s non-conference game. He indicated both quarterbacks would be used in a similar manner against Bridgewater.
“That’s where we are. They’re both gonna be ready and they’re both gonna play, and chapter three will be next week, tune in,” Yoder said.
TAKEAWAYS AND CHUNK PLAYS: Last Saturday’s season opener was a record-setting day for Shenandoah’s defense, which set a new school single-game record with five interceptions and saw senior safety Nate Hill snag his program-best 12th pick.
Though the Hornets did allow 447 yards, including 309 passing, Yoder said he was “thrilled” by the defensive effort and the scheme.
“In the first half we had a great plan, executed at a high level and besides maybe a couple pass plays they really didn’t move the football,” Yoder said. “We had a breakdown, they hit a long touchdown pass in the second half. There was a 50-50 ball where from our vantage point we thought it was incomplete. They called it complete. It was a great catch by the kid, and that led to a scoring drive and they kind of clawed their way back in it.”
Yoder credited the players up front – namely starting defensive linemen Randy Oliver, Mason Caldwell and Jordan Rice and outside linebacker/defensive end Nigel Duberry – with allowing Shenandoah’s linebackers to run free, adding that cornerback Mike Amobi played one of his best games as a Hornet and praising the play of Hill and cornerback Daquan Pridget.
All three of those defensive backs had an interception in the win, while senior linebacker Tyler Williams had two picks. Williams said Saturday’s performance was a case of a veteran Shenandoah defense capitalizing on an N.C. Wesleyan quarterback – senior Donielle Totten – who is in his first season as a starter.
“The quarterback had a little bit less experience,” he said, “so he was kind of throwing the ball up a little bit and you could read his eyes, which made it kind of predictable for our guys to get all over the football and read what he wanted to do.”
While the takeaways were good, big plays continued to plague Shenandoah’s defense against the Bishops, who scored on touchdown passes of 85 and 68 yards in the second half to cut the deficit to 21-19. The Hornets, who placed an emphasis on being more consistent on defense in the offseason, allowed 17 plays of 10 yards or more to N.C. Wesleyan.
“Most of them were missed tackles,” Williams said. “I think we just had that downtime where we had downward momentum and people were just, we just lost it for a bit in the second half.”
METHODIST MAKEUP: Shenandoah’s previously canceled Week 1 home game against Methodist has been rescheduled for Nov. 23.
The makeup game, set to kick off at noon, will now serve as SU’s regular-season finale, and Yoder said Wednesday that the only reason the game wouldn’t be played would be if the Hornets were representing the ODAC in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
The teams’ Sept. 7 meeting was originally canceled due to Hurrican Dorian.
“This was out of anybody’s control and there was a desire on both sides to play the game and now we’ve finally got it figured it out,” Yoder said. “We’ve got it nailed down, we’ve got officials, we’ve got a game time set. Our season ticket holders and fans know that they’re gonna get an extra, later game. Our kids are gonna be excited about it. It’s a win-win for everybody, and it’s what should’ve happened. Division III football players work too hard to get games taken away from them.”