|« Alabama A&M, Alabama State trying to avoid costly SWAC slipups||36 FCS Student-Athletes Named Semifinalists For The National Football Foundation's William V. Campbell Trophy »|
Elon-App State showdown crucial in more ways than one
Even at the end of this past Saturday’s 49-24 loss to Wofford College, a game when they were “outplayed” in every aspect according to head coach Jason Swepson, the Elon University football team was already thinking ahead to this Saturday’s showdown with Appalachian State University.
“Losing today, obviously nobody’s happy with it,” Elon junior defensive lineman Tony Thompson said Saturday. “Coming out this week, we know we can play App State close. We have every year.”
Sixteen games have been played between the teams in the 48 years since Elon last defeated the Appalachian State Mountaineers.
Not only is that hanging over this year’s Phoenix football team, but last year’s tough loss at the end of the season still burns in the players’ guts.
Not to mention players argue Elon desperately needs a win if they have any chance of making the playoffs this season.
Needless to say, this game has a lot riding on it.
History not in their favor
A look at history provides a bit of insight into the Elon-Appalachian State rivalry.
The Phoenix’s showing is, kindly put, below par. Elon sits 9-30-0 all-time in the series, beginning with a 31-0 loss Oct. 23, 1937. It was the only loss Elon suffered in then-head coach Horace Hendrickson’s first season at the helm as the Phoenix went 7-1 that year.
Before both teams were in the Southern Conference, Appalachian State held a 21-9 edge. The teams played their first SoCon game Nov. 8, 2003. Three fights needed to be broken up by referees that game, despite the teams not having played since a 14-10 Mountaineers win Nov. 20, 1971, in Burlington at Williams High School.
The last time Elon defeated the black and gold in football was Oct. 3, 1964, a 28-7 Phoenix victory in Boone, N.C., at Kidd Brewer Stadium, affectionately known as “The Rock.”
The Phoenix lost an opportunity at a SoCon championship in 2009 when the Mountaineers beat Elon 27-10 Nov. 14 in Rhodes Stadium in the second-to-last game of the season, ending an 8-1 run up to that point.
Adam Smith, the Elon football beat writer for The Times-News in Burlington, has been to several Elon-Appalachian State matchups, including that 2009 game The Times-News dubbed the “SoCon Super Bowl.”
“Elon had to watch them celebrate,” Smith said. “It was a true, championship-type celebration. That was a very deflating moment because (Elon) had played so well that year. They dominated a lot of people. If you were an Elon person, you thought, ‘This is the year we can get (App State).’”
There’s a feeling around the Elon locker room any time Appalachian State is mentioned. Sophomore linebacker Odell Benton said the Mountaineers are the team, even as he was being recruited, “We don’t like.”
“I had upperclassmen (telling me), (now-graduated linebacker) Josh Jones last year, he really put that into me, like, ‘Hey, this is App State week, we’re going to get that win, that’s what we really want,’” he said following the Wofford loss. “I feel the rivalry.”
The latest chapter of that rivalry is still fresh in their minds.
Last year lingers
Elon was 5-5, coming off a huge win over then-No. 19 Furman University to pull the Phoenix to a .500 record in Swepson’s first season.
Was it the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on then-junior wide receiver Jeremy Peterson? Did the three-score lead they let slip away take a mental toll? Or did they just not have enough left, that being the last game of the 2011 season?
The answer to why the Phoenix lost a 28-24 heartbreaker to the Mountaineers on Nov. 19 last year could be a number of things. But it ended up being another stumble in the string of losses.
Elon ended the first quarter flying high. The Phoenix got two passing touchdowns from then-junior quarterback Thomas Wilson and a rushing touchdown from then-senior Dontay Taylor.
“We came ready to play football,” Swepson said a few days after the loss. “With that 21-point lead, I think it gave us a belief that we could play at a high level.”
But he added, “I think we scored too early.”
Elon would only tack on a field goal from then-junior Adam Shreiner and watched the Mountaineers get four touchdown passes from then-sophomore quarterback Jamal Jackson.
In the third quarter, Elon had just seven yards of offense and allowed a touchdown. It was a key component in the loss.
“We lost composure,” Swepson said. “We had two major penalties, both unsportsmanlike conduct (one was actually a 15-yard kick catch interference penalty). You have to give credit to App State. Even when they were down 21 points, they didn’t flinch.”
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the unsportsmanlike penalty call on Peterson.
Elon got the ball at their own 29-yard line with 11:07 remaining in the fourth quarter right after the Mountaineers had scored to go up 28-24. Wilson completed three of four passes for 37 yards to bring the Phoenix to the Appalachian State 34-yard line.
On third and five, Wilson hit Peterson with a pass over the middle for a 17-yard gain that put the Phoenix in the red zone. In celebration, Peterson flexed his muscles with his arms curled beside his body. A yellow flag flew, kicking Elon back to the Appalachian State 32. A sack, a five-yard completion and an incomplete pass later, the Phoenix punted.
The Elon defense came out and made a crucial stop, forcing a punt that placed the Phoenix at its own 14 with 2:38 left in the game.
Wilson drove the Phoenix back down the field to the Appalachian State 13 with 1:30 left. On fourth and five, the quarterback attempted to hit Peterson, but Mountaineers linebacker Jeremy Kimbrough jumped and tipped the pass away from any Elon receiver.
“Always. In the back of our mind, always,” Thompson said when asked if that loss lingers. “We went up early. We were excited about it and then they chipped away. It lingers in everyone’s mind constantly. We’re ready to come out and prove to them that we’re better than them and we’re going to beat them this weekend.”
A lot at stake
“The Rock” looms on the Oct. 6 box on the Elon football team’s calendar for more than one reason.
First, Appalachian State is having their Homecoming celebration. Elon last played in Kidd Brewer Stadium during the same occasion Oct. 9, 2010, when 31,531 fans set a school record for football attendance to see the then-No. 1 Mountaineers narrowly defeat the Phoenix 34-31.
“(Appalachian State) is the standard that everyone is striving for, to have game days that look like that,” Smith said. “It’s a legitimate football atmosphere game-day. That’s what it is. They do it right up there. For that scale, it can hold its own with everybody.”
Swepson has never been there.
“I think that’s going to energize us, going to play in front of a big crowd,” Swepson said. “Keep the crowd out of it by scoring and stopping them and it will be a fun day for us.”
Second, the Phoenix is not where it would like to be right now. Elon sits at 2-3 overall, 0-2 in the SoCon, good for second-to-last.
“It’s not there yet, but if we take another loss in the conference, it might be there,” said senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette when asked if the team was in a “back-against-the-wall” situation. “We’ve just got to go in there and win and stay positive and do what we do.”
Last Saturday, Thompson talked about the necessity of a win, and how crucial it would be to beat the Mountaineers in Kidd Brewer Stadium.
“It would be massive,” he said. “Coming off two conference losses, we need a conference win. Especially in their stadium, it’s going to be great. Coming into a bye week after that, getting ready for the rest of the conference, it would be huge.”
Benton said the heartbreaking conclusion to last year has been a motivation for this season, as well as something that still hurts.
“We still haven’t forgotten that loss in the last game of the season last year,” he said. “That was one of our big motivations for the offseason, how we let that game slip right through our fingers. This weekend is huge for us. We’re going to come in confident and we’re going to execute.”
Swepson sees the necessity of getting a win, and getting the black and gold monkey off Elon’s back.
“Obviously, we’d love to go into the bye week 3-3 instead of 2-4,” he said. “We’ve got our demons against App State, so we’re going to go face them, look them right in the eye. We’re going to go out and play physical football on Saturday, I can guarantee you that.”
by Zachary Horner, The Pendulum, Elon University’s Student News Organization