WINCHESTER — You can forget trying to figure out what’s going to happen on the football field in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference each week.
Randolph-Macon’s perch atop the conference race has been the only constant in a season filled with parity, as everyone else has beaten up on each other while looking up at the unbeaten Yellow Jackets. No other ODAC team has fewer than two conference losses.
Shenandoah University continued its descent into the pits of the conference last week with a loss to Bridgewater, which left the Hornets (3-5, 1-4 ODAC) all alone in last place with two games remaining.
Guilford, SU’s opponent in today’s 1 p.m. contest at Shentel Stadium, has had its own miseries in 2018 and yet rose up to thump one of the ODAC’s preseason co-favorites last week, pounding defending conference champ Washington and Lee, 40-3.
Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said he’s no longer surprised by any outcome in the ODAC, and yet the sheer dominance of Guilford’s performance last weekend left an impression.
“We’ve gotta find a way to have a win like that to kind of get the things rolling back our way,” he said.
Things have gone awry for Shenandoah since it appeared to get back on track with a win over Hampden-Sydney on Oct. 6. The Hornets have lost three straight games since then, and a team with conference title aspirations now needs to win out to avoid its first losing record in three seasons.
Of course, that would mean taking care of business against the Quakers (3-4, 2-3) on senior day in a game that could — like most ODAC contests — feature a ton of points from two of the ODAC’s most prolific offenses.
Though Guilford is coming off its best defensive game of the season against W&L — the Quakers limited the conference’s best rushing offense to just 183 total yards and forced five turnovers — it still enters today with the league’s worst mark in total defense (497.3 yards allowed per game) and is allowing 41 points per game, numbers ballooned by a record-setting 91-61 loss to Division I-FCS foe Davidson in Week 3. Guilford allowed 964 yards in that game.
Shenandoah’s defensive numbers aren’t much better. The Hornets are giving up 38.4 points and 493.6 yards per contest, and after allowing 341 yards rushing to Bridgewater last week are surrendering 257.8 yards rushing per game in ODAC play with one of the league’s best tailbacks — Guilford redshirt senior De’Eric Bell — coming to town.
Bell leads the conference with 17 rushing touchdowns and is the ODAC’s second-leading rusher at 149.9 yards per game. He’s carried 167 times for 1,049 yards, an average of 6.3 yards per carry.
“You’re not gonna stop him,” Yoder said of Bell, who has five multi-touchdown games this fall, including a five-TD effort against Davidson. “None of those good backs are; you just gonna completely stone, but can you just make it, so he doesn’t have a day where he just beats you?”
Focusing too much on Bell, Yoder added, is a danger in itself.
Guilford’s offense leads the ODAC in scoring (41 ppg) and total yards (508.6 per game) and has a sophomore quarterback in Alex Manley (1,613 yards passing, 13 TDs; 343 yards rushing) who can make plays with his legs as well as his arm. If SU overloads its defense to stop Bell, Yoder said, the Quakers could make the Hornets pay with play-action and 50-50 passes that could turn into home runs with one missed tackle.
“Guilford’s offense is just very dynamic,” Hornets linebacker Tyler Williams said. “They have a bunch of really good athletes. I don’t think they’re gonna overpower us Saturday, but they definitely have fast, quick guys. If you’re not where you should be, they can easily make you pay for it.”
SU’s offense can be just as explosive — the Hornets’ 496.4 yards-per-game average trails only Guilford in the ODAC — though it has gone through uncharacteristic lulls through stretches in conference play. In last week’s loss, the Hornets were shut out for the final 39½ minutes of the game after racing out to a 20-0 lead.
Senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman, who leads Division III in passing touchdowns (32) , ranks second passing yards per game (364.9) and is three passing TDs shy of tying the ODAC career record (124), said earlier this week that the Hornets need to rediscover the “killer mentality” that elevated them to one of the nation’s best passing offenses during his career.
They’ll look to do so against a Guilford defense that Bauserman said played at a speed last week that it hadn’t shown all season, and Yoder added that against W&L the Quakers shut down the inside run and used their athleticism to chase down running plays on the outside.
Shenandoah’s passing attack presents a different set of challenges than W&L’s run-heavy offense.
“They’re gonna make their share of plays,” Bauserman said of the Quakers, who lead the ODAC in sacks (25). “They’re gonna fly around and chase guys down and things like that. Kind of how they were last year, just really athletic and can make a lot of plays. We’re just gonna have to play really fast as well. We may not be as athletic as them, which is something we’re not used to, but we’re just gonna have to be really physical and play really well and play as fast as we can, and get out on the edge and make plays and go downhill.”