WINCHESTER – In a season full of lofty offensive stat totals, one of Shenandoah University’s best single-game outputs of all time came against North Carolina Wesleyan.
In that game between former USA South Athletic Conference foes in Rocky Mount, North Carolina last September, the Hornets lit up the scoreboard for a school-record 61 points and piled up 555 yards, the third-most in SU history, in a 61-14 blowout. Those two teams meet again at Shentel Stadium at 7 p.m. tonight, and recent happenings suggest things might not be so easy for SU this time around.
“We got them pretty good last year (but) two years ago they beat us up pretty bad,” Hornets head coach Scott Yoder said Wednesday, referring to Shenandoah’s 31-13 loss to N.C. Wesleyan in the Battling Bishops’ last visit to Winchester in 2016. “And they had a really nice win (last Saturday against Thomas More College) that I bet you not a lot of people would’ve predicted going in. So they’re gonna be sky high. They’re much different than last year, two different coordinators, different personnel and they’re much, much better than they were last year at this time.”
N.C. Wesleyan (1-0) won its first season opener since 2012 with a thrilling 35-28 victory over Thomas More last weekend, a game that saw the Battling Bishops lose a 21-point lead before scoring the game-winning touchdown on a 46-yard pass from Nate Gardner to Trey Lancaster with 46 seconds to play.
It’s that senior quarterback-receiver combo that has Shenandoah’s full attention this week.
Gardner is an experienced quarterback now in his third year as N.C. Wesleyan’s starter, and Lancaster led the Bishops in receiving a year ago and hauled in 11 receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s opener.
Gardner struggled in last season’s matchup against Shenandoah, completing just 8 of 25 passes and throwing three interceptions while getting sacked three times, but he’s shown he can carve up opposing defenses. In the 2016 meeting against SU, Gardner threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns, and in last Saturday’s opener he torched Thomas More for 338 yards passing and four TDs.
“Last year we made him uncomfortable from the start and he never got his groove,” Yoder said. “This last Saturday against Thomas More, I don’t know if they touched him one time and it looked like he was playing Madden back there and was just tearing them apart. So we’ve gotta find a way to make him uncomfortable.
“Trey Lancaster … is a really good wide receiver who had huge plays to beat Thomas More,” he added. “He’s a guy that you’ve gotta know where he is every snap. We’re gonna play teams like that in the (Old Dominion Athletic Conference), so this is gonna be a good challenge for us.”
Shenandoah’s defense tallied four interceptions last week in their 48-33 win over Methodist – another USA South opponent – and though they surrendered 521 yards, the Hornets made a trio of defensive stands on their side of the field to keep control of the contest.
SU sophomore cornerback Daquan Pridget, who figures to spend plenty of time covering Lancaster, snagged three of those interceptions last week, and free safety Nate Hill returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown.
Yoder added that in addition to putting pressure on Gardner, the Hornets can put the senior QB in uncomfortable situations by limiting an N.C. Wesleyan running game that saw diminutive tailback Jeff Black – who is listed at 5-foot-5, 145 pounds – rush for 108 yards behind an experienced offensive line last week.
Shenandoah’s own offense picked up where it left off last season, churning out 443 yards against Methodist behind a passing attack led by quarterback Hayden Bauserman. The senior QB threw for 283 yards and three touchdowns, including a pair of long scoring strikes to junior receiver Casey Stewart and another to freshman Ethan Bigbee.
In traditional SU fashion, Bauserman completed passes to nine different players, and Jake Wallace (64 yards) and Jalen Hudson (51 yards) led that list with six and five receptions, respectively. Tailbacks Mario Wisdom and Rashadeen Byrd Jr. combined to add 145 yards rushing to the mix.
Last season Shenandoah rushed for a season-high 221 yards while Bauserman threw five touchdown passes against the Bishops, but Yoder said N.C. Wesleyan has a distinct identity – one that includes a defensive front four with “good motors” – on defense this season after showing multiple fronts against the Hornets in 2017.
The Bishops allowed 435 yards (238 passing, 197 rushing) last week, and Yoder said the Hornets have to neutralize N.C. Wesleyan’s defensive penetration to have success. SU senior offensive guard Andrew Coffman added that the Bishops’ athleticism and pursuit of the ball stood out in film study.
“They’re really good at gang tackling. They will follow the ball,” Coffman said. “I know there was a play we saw where a defensive lineman got cut at the line of scrimmage, chased down a screen and made the tackle, so we’ve just gotta focus on playing nasty and making sure we finish our blocks and stay on them.”