For small-school Elon, there's no more crying in football
FARGO — First, the basics.
Elon, if you didn't know, is a private university 20 minutes east of Greensboro, N.C., with an enrollment of about 6,800. The athletics teams are nicknamed the Phoenix and compete in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The school's football team won two national championships when Elon was a member of NAIA, but hasn't reached nearly that level of success since moving first to NCAA Division II in 1997 and Division I FCS in 1999. The Phoenix made the FCS playoffs in 2009 and 2017, but have yet to win a postseason game. They lost to Furman 28-27 in the first round last year.
Since joining the CAA in 2014, Elon has mostly been a doormat. It went 1-11 in 2014, 4-7 in 2015 and 2-9 in 2016 before improving markedly to 8-4 in 2017. With six straight losing seasons prior to last year, Elon wasn't on many FCS radars.
And then last Saturday happened.
Elon, then ranked No. 10 in the country, beat No. 2-ranked James Madison 27-24 at a sold-out Bridgeforth Stadium to shake up the top echelon of FCS. The victory was Elon's first over a top-5 opponent in its 20-year FCS history. It stopped James Madison's 20-game winning streak in the CAA and handed uber-successful Dukes third-year head coach Mike Houston his first loss at Bridgeforth.
Elon head coach Curt Cignetti didn't want to get into the historical significance of the victory during the postgame press conference, saying that was something the media could write about "to give you interesting stories." But Phoenix senior running back Malcolm Summers eloquently put into words what beating James Madison meant to him.
Summers was a sophomore on the Elon team that was beaten 63-14 at James Madison in 2016, a name-your-score game for the Dukes the year they won the national championship.
"I think that's the beauty of the journey that we all take," Summers said. "You're going to have some mess-ups, you're going to have some trouble when you go through life, but you've got to keep pushing through all that. And that's what coach preaches to us, being relentless and just keep driving.
"It feels good once you're successful, but it took a whole lot of work to get here. A lot of people don't see the crying from the losses, they don't see the two-win-and-whatever seasons. They just see the success. But it took a lot, and it feels good to be here."
Cignetti went to Elon in 2016 after being head coach at Division II Indiana University in Pennsylvania. Prior to that, he was an assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama and coached at North Carolina State before that. He knew about Elon from his days in Raleigh and took the job because he "thought it was a good coaching opportunity."
"They were down record-wise, but they played in a tough conference," Cignetti said on the weekly CAA conference call. "You never know how much how fast. We just sort of implemented our blueprint and the kids bought in. We've improved on a daily basis."
Summers is a top-notch running back and went for 186 yards against James Madison, including a career-long 56-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Davis Cheek was cool under pressure, especially on the game-winning TD drive late in the fourth quarter that ended with a 15-yard scoring toss to Avery Jones with 1:17 remaining.
Elon's defense held the Dukes to 103 rushing yards and had 13 tackles for losses. Linebacker Warren Messer was all over the field.
Elon's win wasn't a fluke. The Phoenix held their own along the lines of scrimmage and, at times, their defensive line dominated.
"I thought maybe we were catching them at a good time because their last four games had been such routs," Cignetti said. "I've been there before. I was at Alabama when we won 29 straight games. Things creep in on you when you are that successful. You're trying to preach, preach, preach but when you are having that much success there can be a tendency to let things creep in where you're not at your very, very best."
Elon jumped to No. 5 in this week's rankings and Cignetti is worried about his team being ready to play after the big win as it travels to Delaware for Saturday's game.
"We've gotten results. It's probably happened a lot faster than a lot of people thought, but there's a lot of season left, too," Cignetti said.