WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s long shot odds of winning an Old Dominion Athletic Conference title were erased with a loss to Emory & Henry last weekend.
The Hornets now are trying to salvage a winning season with three games left on their schedule, which continues with this afternoon’s road trip to Ferrum for an ODAC contest between the longtime conference rivals. Shenandoah, which has played Ferrum 21 times in program history, heads to W.B. Adams Field seeking its seventh all-time win over the Panthers and likely will do so with a freshman quarterback making his first career start and an offensive line that could feature as many as three freshmen starters.
“We’re just trying to be the best team we can be,” SU senior linebacker Bernie Hayes said on Wednesday. “That’s been a goal since the beginning of the season. It wasn’t winning the ODAC or anything like that, because in our eyes to win the ODAC you have to be the best team you can be. Every week that’s the main thing coaches have been instilling is being the best team we can be, being an elite defense, being able to go in and out being the best team you can be at the end of the day, making somebody outwork you in games in that way.”
Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said on Wednesday that he expected freshman quarterback Chris Sonnenberg to start against Ferrum (3-4, 2-3 ODAC), a move that would give SU its third different starting QB this season. Sonnenberg came on in early relief last week against E&H and completed 34 of 62 passes for 340 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions in his first significant college action.
Sonnenberg will be asked to lead an SU offense that likely will need to be running at peak efficiency from the start of today’s game to match a Ferrum offense that the Hornets expect will see the return of All-American running back Brian Mann, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury.
“We can’t fall into this trap of starting poorly,” said Yoder, whose Hornets trailed 24-0 last week before eventually falling, 41-31. “We’ve got to have a great start. And that doesn’t necessarily mean scoring every time we touch the ball, but it means playing at a high level right from the start, not waiting 10 minutes to get into the game.”
With Mann potentially returning (he’s not listed on the two-deep roster in SU’s game notes), the Hornets (4-3, 3-3) can’t afford another slow start. To borrow Yoder’s words, Mann “destroyed” SU in last season’s 38-21 Ferrum win in Winchester, a game in which the Panthers’ record-setting tailback rushed for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
Mann hasn’t played since a Week 5 loss to Washington and Lee on Oct. 5, during which he carried just nine times for 2 yards, but he’s still Ferrum’s leading rusher this season with 304 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
In Mann’s absence, Ferrum’s offense has been very young at the skill positions. Two freshmen tailbacks, Akil Woods (249 yards rushing, three touchdowns) and Javon Parmley (207 yards, three TDs), have shouldered the load at running back in recent weeks, and two more freshmen, Ryan Beidleman (357 yards receiving, three touchdowns) and Dazon Harrison (158 yards) lead the receiving corps.
Sophomore quarterback Titus Jones has also seen some action this season, though senior Zack Clifford (994 yards passing, eight touchdowns, three interceptions, 150 yards rushing) is the starter. In last season’s meeting, Clifford passed for 152 yards, ran for 61 more and scored three total touchdowns against SU.
Mann, however, is the centerpiece of the Panthers’ offense when healthy.
Hornets junior defensive end/linebacker Nigel Duberry said he respects Mann’s heart and motor and called the senior an “old-fashioned dude” in the way that he approaches the game. Ferrum head coach Rob Grande in the past has called Mann a “pine knot” in reference to the senior’s stature (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) and his tough running style.
“I tell the young guys who have never seen him play, he’s probably one of the best backs I’ve ever seen in my life,” Hayes said of Mann, who topped 1,400 yards rushing in each of his first three seasons and has 4,918 yards and 48 touchdowns in his career. “By his stature, he doesn’t look like a crazy athletic back, but he’s smart when he runs. It’s like my dad used to tell me as a running back, he runs at half a man so you’re never tackling him full-on. Our emphasis this week is tackling because that’s a main thing. We missed like 26 tackles on him last year. If he does show up on Saturday, we really want to cut those down.”
Ferrum comes into the game averaging 340.4 yards of offense and 24.7 points per game this season, though the Panthers have scored 12 points or less in four games. Ferrum has scored 10 points in each of its three ODAC losses to conference frontrunners Randolph-Macon, Bridgewater and W&L.
Shenandoah’s offense, for all of its inconsistencies, still ranks second in the ODAC in total yards (439.4 per game) and is the conference’s most productive passing attack (313.7).
Ferrum, which is fourth in the ODAC in total defense (370.6 yards per game) and passing defense (214.7) this year, held SU to a season-low 373 yards in the 2018 meeting. Yoder said that loss last season – the Panthers used physical pass coverage to great success against SU’s pass-heavy attack – marked the start of opposing teams defending Shenandoah’s offense differently.
Yoder added that Shenandoah needs to continue to find ways to get the football to its perimeter weapons in space. If the Hornets can add a consistent downhill running game to punish defenses that focus too heavily on SU’s receivers, Yoder added, the “sky’s the limit” for Shenandoah’s offense.
“We’ve pared down what we think we need to have ready just so that we can get more practice reps at it and just execute at a high level,” Yoder said of what he needs to see out of a Shenandoah offense that has done some lineup shuffling in recent weeks. “We’re still the same team. We’ve got explosive difference-makers on the edge. We’ve got to get them the football. When we do that, teams play us uniquely. The key for our offensive line is to pass protect, and if you’re gonna play us uniquely up front, and in this case we expect to see a 3-2, some type of five-man box, when we are playing at a high level offensively we are hurting you on the edges and we’re making you pay for playing us uniquely. That’s the challenge for this group. That’s gonna be the challenge the next three weeks.”