WINCHESTER — Few football teams have been able to shut down Shenandoah University quarterback Hayden Bauserman and a high-powered Hornets’ passing game over the past few seasons. Two Old Dominion Athletic Conference schools appear to have found the formula this year.
Ferrum and Randolph-Macon have handed SU two conference losses in the past three weeks, and both defenses employed a similar tactic — an in-your-face, physical presence on the perimeter against Shenandoah’s receivers. The results are significant.
In four games outside of those two losses, the Hornets scored 59 points twice and 48 in the other two contests, and averaged 562.8 total yards and 403 passing yards per game. Against Ferrum and Randolph-Macon, Shenandoah scored 35 points combined and posted yardage totals of 373 and 391.
The thinking around the Hornets’ program this week is that they had better get used to teams trying to emulate that defensive game plan over the final four games of the season.
“That’s what we’re guessing, is teams are gonna take those two game plans and that’s how they’re gonna play us,” SU head coach Scott Yoder said on Wednesday, “get aggressive with the receivers, try to find a way to get Hayden off his spot and try to find a way to be multiple in the box. We have to have an answer for that.”
The Hornets never found one against Ferrum, which seemed to always have a defensive back glued to Shenandoah’s receivers whenever SU tried to stretch the field with the deep ball. Bauserman, who threw two interceptions in the loss, said afterward that the Panthers’ defenders were “all over our receivers.”
Yoder was singing a similar tune on Wednesday following last weekend’s loss to Randolph-Macon, which held Bauserman to a 51-percent completion rate and forced two more interceptions.
“There wasn’t a pass where we had a lot of separation, and we had room,” Yoder said. “Even if we were making the play, there was a kid right there.”
Shenandoah’s struggles against pressure defense might be a case of its inexperience at receiver coming to light.
The Hornets’ young receivers have performed well so far — sophomore Jake Wallace is second on the team with 37 receptions for 444 yards and four touchdowns, and fellow sophomore Brant Butler and freshmen Ethan Bigbee and Austin Ragan each have at least 10 catches. But as Bauserman pointed out, not many receivers are asked to create separation and make plays against press man-to-man coverage in high school.
“It’s kind of new to a lot of our receivers,” Bauserman said.
That includes Shenandoah’s veteran pass catchers.
Junior Casey Stewart, though a matchup nightmare for defensive backs at 6-foot-4, didn’t play high school football until his senior year at Warren County. He took two years off from the sport before coming to SU in 2016 and is playing the role of big-bodied deep threat for the first time this season. Senior slot receiver Jalen Hudson is a converted tailback who is used in the short passing game and rarely is asked to stretch the field, and senior Justin Ayres was slowed by an injury early in the season and has only just started emerging as a regular receiving threat over the past two weeks.
“It’s different when there’s a lot of holes in the defense in terms of a zone, and you can kind of sit down and do different things,” said Bauserman, who added that he needs to be better throwing into tight windows, “and it’s different when you know you have a guy up in your face, and he’s trailing you the whole way, and you’ve gotta find a way to get separation, whether it’s a double move or something like that. I think you see that from any type of receiver coming from high school into the college level. We haven’t seen a whole lot of man-to-man up in our face the last couple years. Teams have tried to zone us. Now teams are trying to man us, and we’re getting better at it and just working on it throughout the week.”
Shenandoah has a chance to improve in that department this weekend against an Emory & Henry defense that is allowing 233.6 passing yards per game, the third-highest mark in the conference.
“Guys have taken ownership of it,” Yoder said. “They know. They watch a lot of film, and they know what we’re gonna see. … We had a really good practice Monday night, and we had a good practice (Tuesday), so they’re taking the challenge, and they’re looking ahead and hopefully not moping about what’s happened in their rearview mirror.”