WINCHESTER — Home-field advantage plays a big role in any sport, but Shenandoah University’s football team is quite looking forward to venturing outside Winchester this weekend.
Finally at the end of an extended string of home games, the Hornets travel to Emory & Henry on Saturday for what will be their first road contest since a Week 1 trip to Methodist on Sept. 1. SU head coach Scott Yoder, for one, is eager for a change of scenery.
“I’ve always felt just personally as a player, as a coach, I like to go on the road,” Yoder said on Wednesday. “I’ve always felt that way. It kind of gets you out of your comfort zone where you have to be a little more focused no matter what. You’re in a hotel, you’ve probably never been in that hotel before. You’re in a place, you’ve probably never been in that place before. So I enjoy that, I like that and I’m hoping that’s what our kids need now, is kind of get out of this routine of ‘this is what I do on Friday and we have a home game.’ Let’s break it up a little bit. I think it’s a good thing.”
The confines of Shentel Stadium haven’t been so friendly of late for the Hornets, who have lost three of their last four games, including a dismal 45-14 loss to Randolph-Macon on Saturday that dropped Shenandoah to 1-2 in Old Dominion Athletic Conference play. SU, which was 4-1 at home in 2017, is 2-3 in home games this season with one more yet to play against Guilford on Nov. 3.
Senior outside linebacker Chris Grady and senior quarterback Hayden Bauserman each joined their head coach in expressing an eagerness to hit the road this week, calling the trip a chance to spend more time with teammates and eliminate distractions.
“I’m actually thrilled,” Grady said. “I’m beyond happy to go on the road. I mean I love playing at home but I’ve never played five straight homes games and then had a bye, so it makes it even longer. We’re actually really excited to go on the road trip. Like the coaches were saying this week, I’m excited too that not only is it a road trip but it’s an overnight (stay on Friday night), so you kind of just get to get away and relax. We’re gonna get down there early enough to where we get to kind of chill in our rooms with our buddies. That’ll be a good time and I think it’ll be even better that everybody has time to sit and get in the zone because this week, obviously, we have to have it.”
RISK-REWARD: A penchant for aggressiveness stung the Hornets in last week’s loss, as a gamble on a fake punt on SU’s opening drive set Randolph-Macon up with great field position and helped contribute to an early deficit that buried Shenandoah.
The Hornets faked the punt — a play in which punter Brant Butler’s pass to Casey Stewart was batted away — from their own 33, from which the Yellow Jackets drove to the end zone on five plays to start a string of 45 unanswered points.
Yoder defended the play call after the game and did so again on Wednesday, noting that the Hornets were driving into a “pretty significant” wind and expected Randolph-Macon to bring pressure in an attempt to block the punt (which the Yellow Jackets did later in the first half).
In all, Shenandoah was 0-for-4 on fourth down in the loss, with Bauserman throwing an interception and two incompletions — all in Randolph-Macon territory — in the second and third quarters as the Hornets played catch-up.
The Hornets entered the game 9-for-15 (60 percent) on fourth downs.
“We’re not gonna change who we are,” Bauserman said. “We’re still gonna be aggressive and do what we do. You take those risks and sometimes you look like a genius because you get it, and sometimes you look like an idiot if you don’t. It’s a risk we’re willing to take and it falls on us as players to go out and execute and make it look like it’s supposed to look. We didn’t do that last week. We’re not gonna change who we are but we’ve just gotta go out and execute better.”
TOUCHDOWN TARGET: Stewart, a Warren County High School grad, caught another touchdown pass last weekend to bring his total to nine through six games. He leads the ODAC in touchdown receptions and has at least one in five contests, including two in each of Shenandoah’s first two games and three in a loss to Ferrum on Sept. 29.
Stewart (31 receptions, 482 yards) has already matched the second-highest single-season touchdown reception total in school history, and with four games remaining he’s on pace for 15. That would top the SU record of 14 set by Rico Wallace in 2011.
MISSING PIECES: Shenandoah’s offense was without running back Mario Wisdom and receiver Adrian DeNeal against Randolph-Macon, and while Yoder said he expects Wisdom to return this week after rolling his ankle, DeNeal won’t be suiting up for the Hornets anymore this season.
Yoder said Wednesday that DeNeal, a Winchester native and Millbrook High School grad, is no longer on the team, calling the matter a “personal issue.” DeNeal, a senior, saw his first significant action of his college career this season, catching 12 passes for 164 yards and three touchdowns.
He had the best game of his career two weeks ago against Hampden-Sydney, finishing with four catches for 64 yards and two TDs.
“Love him, did a great job this year, really disappointed that he can’t finish it out,” Yoder said, “but he’s gotta focus on some other things right now that he’s gotta take care of.”