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Elon hunkers down, tries to dig out of hole from sluggish start
Logan Hardin already was drenched from Elon University’s rain-soaked football practice when he reached a dampening realization.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s winning,” the offensive lineman said Wednesday night. “I don’t know what losing’s like. It really is different to be on that losing side.”
The disparities have arrived in waves.
After three losses in four games, Elon is shouldering its slowest start to a season since 2004, while Pete Lembo, in his 10th year as a head coach, is in charge of a team with a 1-3 record for the first time.
A pair of road trips into challenging environments has stung the Phoenix with back-to-back defeats, forming a situation that amounts to just the second losing streak Elon has endured since the start of the 2008 season.
“It’s adversity,” Hardin said. “It’s somewhat of a struggle. But I think we’re looking it dead in the eye.”
Elon’s Southern Conference opener last week at Georgia Southern unraveled from a 14-14 deadlock late in the third quarter to a 38-21 victory for the host Eagles.
Then the Phoenix loaded up for the 6½-hour bus ride home, which didn’t return the team to campus until after 4:30 a.m. Sunday.
“It was a long trip. But it was longer than it would’ve been if we would’ve had a ‘W,’ ” defensive lineman Khirey Walker said. “It was really disappointing. We made a lot of mistakes and we didn’t play our brand of football really well. So you’re just sitting there thinking about the things that you could’ve done better.”
Later on Sunday, upon reconvening to dissect the game film and effectively close the book on Georgia Southern, Lembo noticed a gnawing dissatisfaction circulating among Elon’s players.
That was encouraging sign No. 1 for the Elon coach.
The next came Tuesday when the Phoenix worked through what Lembo labeled as the team’s best practice of the season. It was a session bursting with enthusiasm and intensity that consistently ran ahead of schedule.
“They were as fired up as I’ve seen this group,” Lembo said. “So you hope that they’re starting to figure things out a little bit. Maybe reality is setting in a little bit that, hey, this is where we’re at and we’re going to have to fight, scratch and claw for everything we get.”
And even though only the first weekend of October is approaching, it’s not too early to apply that sentiment to Elon’s playoff aspirations in the Football Championship Subdivision.
With three losses and no Division I victories — the Phoenix routed Division II Shaw on Sept. 11 — Elon’s margin for error relative to securing a postseason bid already has been reduced significantly.
The FCS playoffs expand from 16 teams to 20 this year. But as Lembo readily admitted Wednesday, three- and four-loss entries probably will be in short supply.
Elon gained an at-large berth last year with a 9-2 record that included a 7-1 mark in the Southern Conference.
“Your chances at the playoffs are getting slimmer. Everyone realizes that,” Hardin said. “We just have to keep things in perspective. We’re a 1-3 team. There’s a lot of work left for us to do.”
So for Elon, ranked 21st nationally in the FCS this week, that notion has given way to a newer, more compartmentalized approach going forward.
Lembo’s message at the start of the week was to temporarily shelve Saturday’s upcoming visit from Samford (2-2 overall, 0-1 league) and instead focus on the short term by reinvesting daily in preparation.
The result was an ultra-productive Tuesday practice reminiscent of last season’s veteran-led team. Then came another solid building block with Wednesday’s wet practice, despite the soggy conditions.
“I think our mentality’s changed. It’s not from week to week. It’s from day to day,” Hardin said. “We’re trying to come out here and win Tuesday, win Wednesday, win Thursday, because that’s where it starts. You can’t win on Saturday unless you’re winning during the week.
“That’s sort of our new mission, I guess. One day at a time.”
By Adam Smith, Times-News