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SU heads to Methodist to open season with unfamiliar opponent

Shenandoah University receiver Justin Ayres celebrates during a game last season. The Hornets open up the 2018 season with a game at Methodist on Saturday afternoon. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University opens up the 2018 season this afternoon, and the Hornets do so against a team they know very little about.

SU travels to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to take on Methodist University in a 1 p.m. kickoff at Monarch Stadium, pitting the former USA South foes in a head-to-head matchup for the first time since 2011. Not only that, but without the benefit of film exchange, the most information the Hornets have to go on about their first opponent has come from last season’s game film.

Shenandoah doesn’t walk into its opener entirely blind, but it’s close, and the Hornets approached this past week of practice as a chance to keep the focus internal and sharpen the things that they do well.

“We have some film from last year that we can base off of or whatever, but they’re a completely different team this year, and we have no idea what’s going on,” Hornets senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman said on Wednesday. “So, I think ultimately our approach is definitely just kind of taking what we do best and focus on what we do best, and obviously we’re gonna have a game plan going in, but we know that game plan can be quickly thrown out or changed based on what they’re doing. I think earlier on in the game will kind of be a feeling-out process, and right now we’re just focusing on ourselves.”

If Shenandoah’s offense can come close to matching its production from a season ago, the Hornets will be in good shape against the Monarchs, who finished 2-8 last year and 2-5 in the USA South. SU led the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in scoring (40.1 points per game) and total offense (495.3 yards per game) in 2017 and boasted one of the best passing attacks in NCAA Division III behind the right arm of Bauserman, who led the nation in passing yards per game (381.8) and threw 41 touchdown passes.

The Hornets had some holes to fill at receiver but return plenty of experience at the position with wideouts Casey Stewart and Justin Ayres and slot receiver Jalen Hudson, and a veteran offensive line is out to prove it can help SU establish a more consistent rushing attack this fall.

Methodist, meanwhile, lost its top three tacklers from a defense that finished next to last in the USA South in points allowed (40.1 per game) and total defense (444.5 yards allowed per game) a year ago, though the Monarchs to return all four starters in a secondary that ranked fifth in the conference out of nine teams in passing yards allowed per contest (193).

The Monarchs allowed over 250 yards on the ground per game last season, though Yoder said Methodist’s defense showed on the 2017 game film that it runs well as a unit.

“O-line-wise, can we create a point of attack in the run game? Sure we can. The question mark is can we get up on those second-level guys and make a 4-yard play a 15-yard play?” Yoder said. “This is what happened at Guilford last year; their linebackers ran so well I don’t know if we blocked them all game long and they just terrorized us. The coaching part of you is worried about can we stay fitted up on good athletes in the run game enough?

“And we’ve got some good receivers; they’re not gonna be scared of our receivers. They’re gonna get up in your face, run with them, squeeze things down, so we’re gonna have to make plays one-on-one. If we do that, we’ll be fine, and if we don’t, you don’t know what’s gonna happen.”

Methodist’s offense no longer has the services of running back E’Montie Dears, who scored all seven of the Monarch’s rushing touchdowns last season, or receiver Dylan Cummings, the team’s leader in receptions, yards and touchdown catches in 2017.

The Monarchs do return some experience up front, where senior left tackle D.J. Twitty is back as Methodist’s only returning 2017 all-conference selection on either side of the ball, and junior Steve Keoni is entering his second season as the Monarch’s starting quarterback.

Keoni, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound Miami native, completed 154 of 317 passes (48.6 percent) for 1,726 yards, 16 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season and is also the Monarch’s returning leading rusher (253 yards).

Yoder called Keoni the game’s “X-factor” and said the quarterback’s ability to create and extend plays with his legs would be the “hardest part about Saturday” from a defensive standpoint.

Hornets senior outside linebacker Chris Grady said the key for an experienced SU defensive front seven is to maintain a controlled pass rush.

“What we’ve been doing so far this week and talking about in practice is just taking care of our pass rush, not trying to get too loose,” Grady said. “And (Keoni is) often looking to go, step up in the B gaps if he’s gonna run. If we can just get him running east and west, that’ll help us out a lot. The thing is containing, make sure you don’t get too far upfield and then everybody has to be, obviously, working on the same page.”

Methodist averaged only 18.4 points, and 294.8 yards per game in 2017, and Grady said a Shenandoah rush defense that was gashed for nearly 250 yards per game last fall needs to show it’s more formidable against the run in the opener to set the tone for the rest of the season.

Today’s contest marks the 12th meeting between Shenandoah and Methodist, with the Hornets holding a 7-4 record in the series. The teams met annually from 2001-2011 when SU also was a member of the USA South.

“I think we need to prove we can go out and prepare for an opponent we’ve never seen before and take them very seriously,” Bauserman said. “I know Methodist didn’t have the greatest record last year or whatever but I think with us, especially after the letdown we had kind of towards the end of the season last year, we got caught up in numbers and our record and their record and things like that, just kind of throwing all that out the window and going out and playing and taking it one week at a time. Everybody’s zero-and-zero, every week everybody’s gonna be zero-and-zero, and that’s the way we have to approach it.”

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