WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s football team stuck to the traditional bye-week formula last week, using the break to take an introspective look at the areas in which the Hornets needed to improve as they prepared for the start of Old Dominion Athletic Conference play against Ferrum this weekend. SU tackled a wide range of topics while doing so.
On a broader scale, head coach Scott Yoder said Wednesday, SU took a look at its offense, what that unit had shown in the first three games of the season and what the Hornets can take advantage of in ODAC play. On defense, a lot of focus was turned toward improving on third downs, and on special teams there was an emphasis on improved tackling.
The Hornets also took a more intimate approach and explored the areas of improvement at each position group. For example, Yoder said, the offensive line sought to address how that unit can adjust to the non-traditional defensive fronts the Hornets expect to see as opposing teams search for their own answers for standout quarterback Hayden Bauserman. In other instances, Yoder added, SU coaches stressed something as small as ball carriers handing the football to an official after a play.
“I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished in the bye week. I’ll feel great if on Saturday we play really well and hey, that was the formula,” Yoder said. “You’re always trying to press the right buttons to get the right stuff out of your team.”
It’s tough to find much wrong with Shenandoah’s offense to this point. While posting numbers similar to their lofty 2017 scoring and yardage outputs, the Hornets have shown improvement in the running game (157 yards per game on the ground), on third down (49 percent conversion rate) and in the red zone (75 percent touchdown rate), areas in which they wanted to be better in 2018.
Not surprisingly, however, Bauserman said the Hornets’ offense isn’t fully satisfied. He noted that unit spent the bye week working on finishing drives in pressure situations, particularly deep in the red zone, an area that hurt SU in its loss to Hobart two weekends ago.
Shenandoah has been more flawed on the defensive side. Though the Hornets have shown improvement against the run – the defense’s primary emphasis entering the season – they are allowing 348.3 yards passing per game, and they are allowing opposing offenses to convert 48.9 percent of the time on third down, the highest mark in the ODAC.
“We’ve talked about getting off the field on third down, the money down, and just trying to make big plays,” Hornets junior defensive end Jordan Heisen said. “Mentally checking in that it’s a pass rush, they’re typically not gonna run it, and we just need to get together as a defense, lock in and get a stop.”
LACKING PRESSURE: Shenandoah’s defense, though last in yards allowed last season, finished 2017 with the second-most sacks in the ODAC (24). Despite having most of those same pass rushers back – including senior outside linebacker Chris Grady (5.5 sacks last season) and Heisen (5 sacks) – the Hornets have just two sacks through the first three games of 2018 after posting nine at this point a year ago.
Additionally, SU is tallying tackles for loss at a much lower rate. The Hornets have 11 TFLs in three games this season after recording 78 in 10 contests in 2017, a difference of 4.1 TFLs per game. In last year’s opener alone Shenandoah recorded 13 TFLs against Gallaudet, a team that runs a triple-option offense.
The culprit, at least partially, is Shenandoah’s stricter focus on improving its rush defense, and Heisen said the Hornets’ lack of sack production so far this season doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve taken a step back in that department.
“We still have those same guys that made those pass rushes, so we’re not worried,” said Heisen, who has one of SU’s two sacks. “We know we can get to the quarterback but our biggest thing is stopping (opposing offenses) and make sure they know that they cannot run. Once we do that, then we can get to the quarterback. But right now, like Ferrum this week, they have a very good running back (junior Brian Mann) and we plan to not let them run.”
Yoder agreed that Shenandoah’s defensive play calling has been less aggressive than in 2017 as the Hornets emphasize stopping the run. He added that the style of quarterbacks SU has played so far – Methodist’s Steve Keoni is a dual-threat QB, North Carolina Wesleyan’s Nate Gardner is a three-year starter and Hobart’s Ryan Hofmann, though inexperienced, threw on time and got the ball out quickly against the Hornets – has contributed to SU’s low sack totals.
“I think it’s a combination of factors,” Yoder said, “but obviously we’d like to disrupt the signal callers more than we are right now.”
Shenandoah will face another dual-threat quarterback this week in Ferrum junior Zack Clifford, who has thrown for 533 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception and rushed for 162 yards and three scores.
ODAC OPENER: Prior to last season Shenandoah and Ferrum had met 17 straight times since 2000, the last four games in the series played as non-conference opponents. The two former USA South rivals are again conference foes with Ferrum’s addition to the ODAC this fall, meaning Saturday’s 1 p.m. matchup at Shentel Stadium holds more significance than SU’s previous meetings with the Panthers during Yoder’s tenure.
“At the end of Saturday everyone has started conference play and you’re either gonna be 1-0 or you’re gonna be 0-1. And if you’re 0-1 you’ve gotta feel like your back’s against the wall, you almost gotta have the feeling of ‘hey, we might have to win out to have a shot (at an ODAC title),’” Yoder said. “And it’s the end of September, you’re not worried about tiebreakers and all that stuff, but the mental edge of starting well is huge and we need to do that. And we need to get that taste of Week 3 out of our mouth, for sure, and play well and move forward, but we’ve gotta start 1-0.”
Shenandoah (2-1) and Ferrum (2-1) each earned 26 points to tie for fourth place in the ODAC’s preseason coaches’ poll. The Hornets have won each of the last four games against the Panthers – who are already 0-1 in the conference with a season-opening loss to rival Emory & Henry – by an average margin of 18.5 points.
Saturday will mark the 21st meeting between the two schools.