WINCHESTER – Those within Shenandoah University’s football program spoke last week about the importance of starting strong with a win in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference opener last weekend. The Hornets couldn’t do that in 38-20 loss at home to Ferrum, and now they must get turned around in a hurry with Hampden-Sydney coming to town for Saturday afternoon’s homecoming contest.
“To me personally it made me just like, look, we can’t lose,” Hornets junior safety Nate Hill said on Wednesday of opening ODAC play 0-1. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that. If we lose the game we might not get a ring. And all of us are trying to come together and get a ring, so obviously it was really like an eye-opener for us. We’ve gotta be on our stuff.”
An 0-2 start to conference play wouldn’t altogether eliminate Shenandoah (2-2 overall) from the ODAC race so early in league play, but such a start would put SU in a dire situation, particularly given the Hornets’ late-season struggles in recent years (SU is 1-13 in November games since 2012).
Since Shenandoah joined the ODAC in 2012, no team has finished higher than third place in the final conference standings after losing its first two ODAC games of the season (Emory & Henry was third in 2016 after winning its final five games). Only twice since 2007 – in 2008 (Catholic University) and 2014 (Hampden-Sydney) – has a team won the ODAC with two conference losses, and on each occasion there was a four-way tie atop the league.
Last week’s loss to Ferrum doesn’t necessarily change how the Hornets approach this weekend’s contest. Even if SU was 1-0, a matchup with a perennial ODAC championship contender in Hampden-Sydney (1-2, 1-0 ODAC), which holds a 5-1 record against SU, would be no less a big-time game for Shenandoah. But head coach Scott Yoder agreed that his team’s 0-1 start adds a bit more magnitude to the contest.
“I think absolutely it does,” said Yoder, whose team won four straight games the last time it dropped its ODAC opener in 2016. “I think the mistake right now is to try to look too big picture and say well, you’ve gotta run the table or X, Y and Z have gotta happen. Really what it’s gotta come down to is we’ve gotta play well. Saturday (against Ferrum) was not our best and we’re all disappointed about that. We’ve addressed those issues, but we’ve gotta get back to playing our best. And how do we do that? We start in practice. Great preparation, great practice, you string two and three practices together, then you’re ready to play Saturday and you have a great effort. Because right now all these scenarios and ‘oh, don’t go 0-2’ or what can happen if you’re 1-1, if we’re not playing well it does not matter.”
STRENGTHENING THE SECONDARY: Shenandoah’s defense was gashed for 353 yards rushing in last weekend’s loss to Ferrum, and the Hornets will see a decidedly different offense when Hampden-Sydney’s prolific passing attack arrives at Shentel Stadium on Saturday.
Tigers senior quarterback Alec Cobb enters the game averaging nearly 52 pass attempts per game through three contests, and his 416 passing yards per game average leads Division III.
Though Shenandoah leads the ODAC with eight interceptions, the Hornets are allowing 299.2 yards through the air per game, the second-worst mark in the conference. That number will need to improve in the offense-friendly ODAC.
To do that, Hill said, SU’s secondary has placed an emphasis on better communication, an area strengthened by a recent trip to the bowling alley last week that served as a team-building exercise for the Hornets’ defensive backs.
“It actually made us so much better together,” Hill said. “… Us talking, just coming together and just buying into it has just made us so much better in practice. We talk a lot and, I don’t know how to say it, it just looks good. It looks perfect. Instead of us being like ‘hey, what’s the play! What’s the play!’ and nobody’s talking to him, it’s ‘what’s the play. All right, we got you.’ Boom, on the same page.”
Yoder added that a Shenandoah defense that has just two sacks in four games needs to find ways to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable and, specifically for Hampden-Sydney, has to make the Tigers “earn everything that they get” on Saturday.
“No freebies,” Yoder said. “That doesn’t mean just no blown coverages, but tackle them, get them to ground, make them earn everything for 60 minutes. If we do that, good things are gonna happen for us.”
FOURTH-QUARTER FIZZLE: As productive as Shenandoah’s offense has been this season, the Hornets have not been able to find points in late-game situations with the game on the line. In each of the last two games – both losses – SU has been shut out in the fourth quarter.
“We feel pretty good about ourselves on offense and we walk around here with an air of confidence, but in critical situations in the last two weeks we haven’t scored in 30 minutes,” Yoder said. “We presented that challenge to our team and we addressed the things that I think we need to address and let’s get back to it.”
Last week, in a game that was 24-21 Ferrum entering the fourth quarter, Shenandoah had three possessions in the final frame and went three-and-out twice before turning the ball over on an interception with 46 seconds left.
In a Week 3 loss to Hobart, the Hornets trailed by a point entering the fourth quarter and had four possessions that ended in a punt, two turnovers on downs and an interception.
Senior slot receiver/running back Jalen Hudson couldn’t quite pinpoint why the Hornets, who are averaging 44 points and nearly 500 yards of offense per game, have struggled to produce at the end of close games.
“We’ve gotta figure how to get the job done in the fourth quarter. We can’t come into a game, score in every quarter and then get to the fourth quarter and not score. That’s unacceptable for all of us,” Hudson said.
“It’s very surprising,” he added. “I mean, it happens. Anything can happen during a game but that’s unacceptable for us as an offense to have no scores, no touchdowns, not even a field goal in the fourth quarter.”