Can Elon sustain, William & Mary bounce back?
Of the numerous unexpected CAA Football results this season's first month yielded, Elon's 27-10 win at then-No. 8 William & Mary last week may be the most likely one no one saw coming.
So are the Phoenix ready to add their name to the expanding list of conference contenders following their biggest victory as a league member? And was all the lofty preseason praise heaped upon the Tribe actually warranted?
Those still unanswered questions should be better explained Saturday, when the rising Phoenix (2-2, 1-0) host 17th-ranked Villanova (3-1, 1-0) and No. 19 William & Mary (2-2, 0-1) makes the traditionally tough trip to New Hampshire (2-2, 1-0).
Having been outscored 78-20 in season-opening defeats to Gardner-Webb and Charlotte, Elon entered Zable Stadium a heavy underdog and left with its first win over a top-10 opponent since besting No. 6 Wofford in 2007. With the offense still adjusting to a season-ending injury to quarterback Connor Christiansen in Week 1, the resilient Phoenix compensated with superior special-teams play and a sound defensive effort that contained three fourth-down stops and three interceptions with the Tribe in enemy territory.
“We're still a work in progress – we had some breakdowns here and there – but I think the kids learned from this,” Elon coach Rich Skrosky said. “When you play hard and you're a physical football team on defense, usually the results are going to be pretty good.”
The Phoenix built a 17-0 first-half lead by capitalizing on two William & Mary breakdowns in the kicking game, one a blocked punt and the other a botched snap on a punt attempt. Their first touchdown drive was aided by another short field created when All-CAA punter David Petroni pinned the Tribe at the 1-yard line and the defense caused a three-and-out.
Skrosky's young squad has little time to savor its breakthrough win with three straight home games against perennial conference powers, as New Hampshire and No. 6 Richmond pay visits following Elon's inaugural meeting with Villanova.
“It'll be a good barometer of where we're at from a maturity standpoint,” he said. “I think there's been signs of some maturity as the year's progressed, and this will be one of those other signs – how do we prepare this week for another very good opponent coming off a good win over a very good team.”
Like Elon, Villanova has offset an inconsistent offense by being craftily resourceful in other areas. The Wildcats have produced four defensive touchdowns, with two coming in last week's 31-14 win at Lafayette that was tougher than the final score indicated.
“(The defense) saved us this past weekend against Lafayette, they really did,” coach Andy Talley remarked. “We just didn't have a very good outing offensively, and when you have a defense that can actually score points for you or get the ball knocked down and turn it over with an opportunity to have short fields, you're always in great shape.”
Tanoh Kpassagnon set the tone with a 25-yard fumble return score on the opening play. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound senior end and NFL prospect leads the CAA with four sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for loss.
While Villanova hits the road with momentum from a three-game winning streak, William & Mary hopes to gain some following last week's mistake-filled performance and a second consecutive slow start to the season. The Tribe also dropped their CAA opener while splitting the first four games of 2015, then ripped off six straight wins en route to a playoff appearance.
Kendell Anderson led that surge by rushing for 789 yards and 11 touchdowns during the streak, but the standout running back has been limited to 89 yards and 24 carries thus far while battling shoulder and ankle injuries. Though Albert Funderburke has filled in capably, the promising freshman reportedly tore his ACL against Elon.
The diminished ground attack has had an effect on quarterback Steve Cluley, with the usually steady senior having thrown a conference-high seven interceptions and completing just 56.4 percent of his throws.
“We're not clicking right now,” wide receiver DeVonte Dedmon said. “We're not all on the same page.”
Getting Anderson untracked will be essential to the Tribe's chances of rebounding, as they're 11-0 since the start of last season when rushing for 149 yards or more and 0-6 when held under that mark. They were held to 104 on 33 attempts by Elon.
William & Mary piled up 325 yards on the ground in last October's 34-18 home win over New Hampshire, with Anderson accumulating 174 on 27 carries.
It's an equally pivotal game for New Hampshire. Though Sean McDonnell's team won its league opener last week at Rhode Island, a narrow loss at Dartmouth the previous Saturday has already left the Wildcats with little room for error in their quest to extend the longest active run of consecutive FCS playoff appearances to 13 years.
UNH does return home in better spirits after putting forth what McDonnell termed “our best full-game effort that we had all year” in the 39-17 victory over URI. The Wildcats scored 17 fourth-quarter points to pull away and take some of the sting out of the Dartmouth game, in which the Big Green tallied 15 unanswered points in the final period to rally for a 22-21 win.
The Tribe have been a major nemesis for New Hampshire in recent years, having won 11 of the last 13 meetings. However, they've lost in their last two trips to Durham, including a 32-3 drubbing in 2014.
“They've gotten our number a bunch of times,” McDonnell said. “This one's huge for us.”