WINCHESTER -- Washington and Lee seemed intent on letting Shenandoah University’s football team hang around on Saturday afternoon, but costly turnovers at pivotal moments prevented the Hornets from winning their final Old Dominion Athletic Conference game of the season.
Shenandoah turned the football over five times, including twice in the red zone on a pair of interceptions, as it dropped a 34-31 decision to the visiting Generals on senior day.
The loss erased SU’s shot at earning its first seven-win season since 2004 and its first winning record in ODAC play since 2016.
“We were 4 of 6 in the red zone. You lose by three, those two opportunities are gonna come back to haunt you,” said Hornets head coach Scott Yoder, whose team dropped to 5-4 overall and 4-4 in the ODAC with the loss. “That’s what it came to. We knew points were gonna be at a premium. They were gonna play, they were gonna do their thing. There were times they were rolling pretty good. We were thrilled to get out of the first half only down three because it felt like at times it was two scores and could’ve been three scores down. But when you play them you’ve got to cash in on all your opportunities, and we did not.”
None of Shenandoah’s five turnovers, which included four interceptions by freshman quarterback Chris Sonnenberg, loomed larger than the two interceptions that the Generals (6-4, 5-3 ODAC) snagged in the end zone in the first and third quarters.
The first came with SU (5-4, 4-4) trailing 14-7 and immediately after Sam Adams’ 69-yard kickoff set the Hornets up with great field position at the W&L 15-yard line. Sonnenberg, looking for senior Casey Stewart in the end zone on first down, lofted a pass right into the arms of Generals linebacker Will Corry.
Sonnenberg said afterward that miscommunication led to the interception, as he threw a go-route while Stewart -- who regularly wins 50-50 balls -- was running a post route.
“He put it up there and unfortunately it was one of those plays where I didn’t look fast enough,” said Stewart, who went on to catch three touchdowns from Sonnenberg in the game. “Regardless of the route, when he trusts me to go up and make a play, I’ve got to do my job. Whether that’s making the catch or turning my head faster to see the ball, at the very least I could’ve made a play and knocked it down and gave us another chance.”
SU’s second red-zone turnover came midway through the third quarter with the Hornets trailing 31-21. On third-and-goal from the 3, Sonnenberg looked for Brant Butler on a slant but his pass was tipped and intercepted by Generals’ defensive back Dean Johnson.
Shenandoah quickly got the ball back when Nate Hill (team-high 14 tackles) recovered a fumble at the W&L 30, but the Hornets had to settle for Drew Geyer’s 28-yard field goal after reaching the 11-yard line.
“To be a 3-point ballgame and as many turnovers and big plays that the defense and special teams had, and not being able to capitalize on them, that’s a game-changer itself,” Stewart said. “When we relied on the defense to make big plays and give us a chance, they did. Unfortunately, today we let them down and we just couldn’t capitalize.”
Despite the five turnovers and a 421-337 Washington and Lee advantage in total yardage, Shenandoah’s fate wasn’t sealed until Sonnenberg’s Hail Mary as time expired was intercepted at the Generals’ 15. The Generals, who had already blown a pair of late two-score leads in two losses this season, gave SU its last gasp from the W&L 40-yard line when backup QB Drew Richardson, who was trying to run the final eight seconds of the game off the clock on fourth down, retreated 22 yards behind the line of scrimmage before going down to the turf with two seconds still left on the clock.
The game was teetering on the edge of a blowout after the first 15 minutes, as a W&L offense that ran all over SU in the first quarter looked to be on its way to adding to its 21-7 lead at the start of the second quarter.
But Shenandoah’s defense held and forced a punt from its own 38, and Nigel Duberry changed the tone of the game when he blocked the Generals’ kick, scooped up the loose ball at the W&L 44 and returned it to the 20, setting up Sonnenberg’s 10-yard TD pass to Stewart two plays later.
“Throughout practice (assistant coach Kalvin) Oliver was just saying expect to come free because their wall moves, shifts to the left so they wanted me on the right side, just explode and try to get the block but don’t hit the punter,” Duberry said. “That’s what I did.”
Special teams were simultaneously very good and very bad for the Hornets on Saturday. In addition to Duberry’s blocked punt, Adams’ long return in the first quarter and Geyers’ field goal in the second half, SU also faked a punt that resulted in Butler’s 49-yard run to the W&L 11, setting up Stewart’s second TD catch of the day that pulled SU within 24-21 with 1:06 left in the first half.
But Shenandoah also had a punt partially blocked on the game’s first series, setting W&L up with a short field that it turned into the game’s first touchdown, and lost a fumble on a kickoff in the second quarter that could’ve been more damaging had Generals QB Jack Pollard not missed an open receiver on a slant route in the end zone on fourth down from the SU 5.
“If you look back at our season right now with one to play, in big games we’ve turned the ball over,” Yoder said.
Washington and Lee opened the second half with a methodical nine-play, 59-yard scoring drive that ended with Coby Kirkland’s 5-yard touchdown run that put the Generals up 31-21, and Jarrett Wright’s 39-yard field goal -- his second of the game -- that just snuck over the crossbar with 7:02 to play proved to be the difference on the scoreboard.
After Sonnenberg connected with Stewart for a third TD pass on fourth down from the 2-yard line to cut W&L’s lead to 34-31 with 3:16 left, Shenandoah’s defense forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to its offense at the Hornets’ 13 with 2:01 to play. Sonnenberg threw his third pick of the game three plays later.
“There were times today that live I felt like his eyes were deceiving him,” Yoder said of Sonnenberg, who completed 29 of 40 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns in addition to his four interceptions. “Give your tip of the hat to Washington and Lee, was it pressure, was it something that got him off his first thought?
“I thought they did a nice job, whether it was pressure or disguising some things. Sometimes he wasn’t trusting his first look.”
The Generals finished the game with 343 yards rushing -- led by Josh Breece’s 151 yards and a TD on 21 carries -- but Shenandoah seemed to settle in a bit defensively after allowing 182 yards to W&L in the first quarter.
Yoder said it took SU some time to get a feel for W&L’s option offense that has added the extra element to an improved passing game this season.
“We just moved some personnel around,” said Duberry, (10 total tackles and three tackles for loss). “We stuck to one defensive line, slants and stuff like that to get them moving around because we’re good with speed against any team. We just moved personnel around and just switched up the game plan.”
Shenandoah closes the regular season with a non-conference game against Methodist next weekend.
“That’s definitely something that stings a little bit,” Stewart said of the loss. “Regardless of if we have one week left or not, it’s a non-conference game. This game right here means a lot to the seniors and something we had talked about was finishing 7-3 and kind of leaving a legacy here for being the first team to do this in a long time. But unfortunately it didn’t fall in our favor.”