WINCHESTER — Shenandoah University’s football team had set the initial pieces it needed for a bounce-back victory against Bridgewater College last week.
The Hornets wanted to start fast against the Eagles and built a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter. They also forced four turnovers and made some critical plays on special teams. And yet Shenandoah fell, 28-20, losing its third straight game and fourth in its last five Old Dominion Athletic Conference contests.
SU head coach Scott Yoder said Wednesday his team left points on the board in the first half, citing a missed extra point and a missed field goal among the damage done to the Hornets’ cause early on. There also was a crucial turnover late in the first half that set up Bridgewater’s first touchdown, and SU couldn’t sustain drives in the second half, a couple more key turnovers burning the Hornets, as well as too many negative plays that Yoder said included everything from penalties to missed assignments to physical breakdowns.
“Certainly the way the last couple weeks and month have gone for us, guys are starting to look around and wonder what the heck’s happening,” Yoder said of SU’s struggles, which have taken a snowball effect in the worst way. “Instead of who’s gonna step up and make the next play, people are worried about ‘uh oh, something bad’s gonna happen,’ and that’s not a recipe for success.”
Shenandoah (3-5 overall, 1-4 ODAC) has been trying to rediscover that winning recipe since hammering Hampden-Sydney, 59-34, in a homecoming contest on Oct. 6. It boils down to putting together a full 60 minutes of sound, “mentally tough” football, Yoder reiterated on Wednesday.
That’s easier said than done now that the Hornets — the ODAC’s preseason No. 4 pick and conference title hopefuls — have had their confidence shaken as they prepare to host Guilford on Saturday.
“We’ve just gotta get back that killer instinct and right now, in the last couple weeks, you can understand why our guys don’t have it,” Yoder said. “We’ve just gotta try to find it now. Even though we’re only three weeks from playing at a high level, that feels like an eternity.”
Reclaiming that confidence, Yoder added, is the “challenge of athletics” — finding a way to successfully navigate a team through the ups and downs of a season. Shenandoah still has the same talent and the same explosive ability it had when its offense was putting up nearly 600 yards a game earlier this season, he said, it’s just the mental part that has changed.
“It definitely hurts,” Hornets junior linebacker Tyler Williams said of SU’s shaken confidence. “People definitely are getting down and stuff because we’re not where we have been the past two years. I think that is affecting our performance but I think we really need to just come out strong these next two weeks, play hard and have a sense of pride.
“It definitely is hard,” he added, “but it just takes strong character, and I think people just need to just love playing the game of football and finish out this season strong.”
NEXT MAN UP: One thing that has remained consistent in Shenandoah’s offense is the game-by-game emergence of a go-to guy in the passing game. Freshman receiver Ethan Bigbee is the latest to emerge as another weapon at quarterback Hayden Bauserman’s disposal.
Bigbee caught three passes for 89 yards against Bridgewater last weekend, including a 63-yard touchdown grab that put SU up three scores with 9:32 left in the second quarter. In his last four games, Bigbee has 22 receptions for 278 yards and three TDs. That includes a 14-reception, 117-yard effort in a loss to Emory & Henry two weeks ago, during which the Woodbridge native tied the school record for catches in a game.
“Ethan’s done a great job,” Yoder said. “He’s gotten better every week. He’s coachable, he works hard and I think he’s appreciative and understands our offense — when you get open, there’s a good chance you’re gonna get the football. And actually his big play (against Bridgewater), Hayden checked to, saw something that he liked and checked to (it) and hit Ethan, and Ethan did a great job getting into the end zone. So keep leaning on all those guys, but that’s the nice thing about us, is even from Day 1, you don’t know who’s gonna have the big day.”
SENIOR DAY: Saturday’s contest will be the last at Shentel Stadium for Shenandoah’s 12 seniors, who would love nothing more than to end the team’s current slide at home in front of a crowd that should include plenty of family members on hand to celebrate the occasion.
“It’s gonna be emotional,” Bauserman said. “Last time playing in Shentel and I’ve played a lot of really good football games there. I’ve had a lot of really good memories that’s meant the world to me throughout my career. I’m sure we’re gonna be juiced up and excited to play. There’s gonna be a lot of family there and a lot of fans and things like that. It’s definitely gonna be emotional, just gonna have to go out and put that emotion to good use and not let it kind of get over our heads.