WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football team is only a game into Old Dominion Athletic Conference play, and yet the Hornets enter a weekend that could have major implications on their conference title hopes.
Shenandoah, which dropped its ODAC opener to Ferrum last weekend, hosts Hampden-Sydney in a 1 p.m. homecoming contest at Shentel Stadium today trying to avoid a 0-2 start that would greatly diminish SU’s championship odds.
The Tigers (1-2, 1-0 ODAC), who beat Emory & Henry in their own conference opener last week, were picked a spot ahead of Shenandoah in the ODAC’s preseason coaches’ poll and had won five of six meetings with the Hornets (2-2, 0-1) since SU joined the conference in 2012.
“I think the kids know in the back of their minds that the goals that they have, that this is a big-time game,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said earlier this week. “But let’s be honest, if we were 1-0 in the league, it would still be a big-time game. You’ve got a really good team coming in here, but we always feel as a team we put that pressure on ourselves. This is gonna be a big game because Hampden-Sydney’s a good team, and if you look at the last four to five years, whoever wins the conference usually has to beat Hampden-Sydney and (Washington and Lee), or is Hampden-Sydney and W&L. So we know this is a big one.”
Today’s contest has all the makings of a shootout between two of the most prolific passing offenses in Division III. Hampden-Sydney senior quarterback Alec Cobb enters the game as the nation’s leading passer (416 yards per game), while Hornets senior QB Hayden Bauserman ranks sixth in passing yards per game (340.3). Cobb and Bauserman are averaging 51.7 and 48.8 pass attempts per game, respectively.
In three games Cobb has thrown for 1,243 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions, and though Yoder said the senior is an experienced QB making all of the right decisions this season, Cobb may not be the biggest weapon in the Tigers’ offense. That title very well could belong to longtime head coach Marty Favret, who doubles as Hampden-Sydney’s offensive coordinator.
“The thing that stands out to me is not even anybody on the field, it’s the coach,” Hornets sophomore safety Nate Hill said. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s gonna do trick plays, different types of plays. One player’s gonna get the ball, another player’s gonna get the ball. He has somebody at receiver that’s gonna play everywhere. He’s not gonna just play receiver; he’s gonna play running back, he can switch to tight end. He can go everywhere. (Favret) really uses every player he has.”
Hampden-Sydney no longer has wide receiver Cam Johnson, the 2017 ODAC Offensive Player of the Year, but junior Major Morgan has taken over as the primary threat at receiver and has 29 catches for 434 yards and three TDs.
The Tigers are averaging a meager 41.7 yards rushing per game, but freshman running back Kaleb Smith is a versatile threat who leads the team in receptions (31, for 311 yards and two touchdowns) and rushing yards (162).
Hornets defense coordinator Brock McCullough said they present some issues because their offensive coordinator, their head coach, is a brilliant guy who does very nontraditional stuff.
“Most teams, they run a certain offense, and all the receivers will run really crisp routes, and you can’t quite tell who’s getting the ball,” he said. “Here he’s got an identified play that he wants, so a lot of guys will take a play off while he’s isolating one side of the field. He’s just so different from everybody else.”
Shenandoah’s defense, which is allowing 490 yards of offense per game, showed susceptibility to the passing game in its first three games before getting gashed for 353 yards rushing against Ferrum last week.
That failure to stop the running game paired with an uncharacteristic lack of production from Shenandoah’s offense to produce a 38-21 loss that has the Hornets playing catch-up in the ODAC race.
SU’s offense, led by Bauserman’s 1,361 passing yards and 18 touchdowns, will try to get back on track after posting season lows in points and total yards last week. The Hornets come into today averaging 44 points and 491.5 yards of offense, two of the best marks in the ODAC.
Hampden-Sydney is allowing 25.7 points and 379.3 yards per game and sits in the middle of the pack in the conference in rush and pass defense. Yoder said a Tigers linebacker group that includes 2017 first team All-ODAC selection Griffin Davis is “hands down” the best the Hornets have seen so far this season.
SU senior slot receiver/running back Jalen Hudson, who has 29 receptions for 227 yards and three TDs, said their linebackers are solid, big boys.
“… Their defense is really solid. I really like their defense,” Hudson said. “Our offense, we’ve just gotta play smart, that’s all. We can’t let up. We’ve gotta play smart, and if we make a mistake, we’re gonna pay for it.”
The Tigers have just two interceptions so far, but Yoder said senior cornerback Brian Gwaltney is “as good of a corner in the ODAC as you’re gonna play.” In last season’s meeting, a 49-43 Hampden-Sydney win, Bauserman threw for 401 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Last year’s game at their place they were very physical with our wide receivers down the field and that got us off of our timing,” Yoder said, “so we’ve gotta be ready for those things.”