CAA Notebook: Phoenix ready to rise?
(STATS) - One good indicator of a team's progress is when it overcomes adversity to succeed on the road.
Elon received its first gut-check moment of the Curt Cignetti era last Saturday at Furman, a challenge the youthful Phoenix handled with an impressively veteran aplomb. Dominated in the second and third quarters as an early 21-0 lead turned into a seven-point deficit, Elon regained both its composure and the momentum by delivering two late scoring drives to grind out a 34-31 win for the program's first victory under its new coach.
"To win a game like this and come back from behind may be of more value for our players in the long run," Cignetti said. "I just saw us, when the chips were down, really respond in all three phases of the game. I was really proud to see that, and they played with great poise at the end of the game, too."
More encouraging for Cignetti and Phoenix fans were the vital roles a pair of true freshmen played in the comeback. Davis Cheek completed 8 of 9 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown on the final two drives, and kicker Owen Johnson finished the last with a 36-yard field goal with five seconds left.
Whether the hard-earned win serves as a long-awaited springboard for Elon, a program that went 7-27 overall over its first three seasons in CAA Football, remains to be seen. What's evident are the strides the Phoenix have already made on offense under Cignetti, a longtime assistant at several FBS Power 5 schools who spent the previous six seasons guiding Indiana University of Pennsylvania to three Division II playoff appearances and a 53-17 record.
Elon put up 446 total yards on the Paladins and scored 30 points in a game for the first time since 2013. The Phoenix ranked near the bottom of the FCS in a number of offensive categories during last year's 2-9 campaign, placing 123rd out of 125 teams in scoring, 118th in total yards per game and 119th in passer rating.
Cheek has had much to do with the improvement as well. The unflappable 18-year-old ended his second career start with 301 yards and three touchdowns while connecting on 26 of 35 passes.
"At the end of the game he looked like a kid out there having fun, just enjoying himself," Cignetti said. "He got a couple different looks defensively from Furman he hadn't seen, he responded the right way, made some good throws. I was really impressed."
That's high praise coming from Cignetti, who worked with or recruited future NFL stars Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson as the quarterbacks coach at N.C. State and won an FBS national championship on Nick Saban's staff at Alabama in 2009.
Elon's next test figures to reveal just how far its upgraded offense has come. The Phoenix hold their home opener Saturday against 16th-ranked Charleston Southern, which returns eight starters from a defense that yielded the third-fewest passing yards per game in the FCS in 2016 and finished seventh in total defense.
"Tremendous defensive football team that didn't lose many players from last year," Cignetti said of the Buccaneers. "I compare them with Toledo (Elon's Week 1 opponent) in terms of their talent level at linebacker and up front on defense - maybe better than Toledo up front, to be perfectly honest with you."
CAA SHINING IN NON-CONFERENCE PLAY
CAA Football teams were a perfect 6-0 against fellow FCS members last weekend and are 9-1 in such matchups for the season, with eighth-ranked Richmond's neutral-site defeat to No. 3 Sam Houston State in Texas on Sept. 1 the lone blemish.
The league is also the only FCS conference with two victories over FBS competition after ninth-ranked New Hampshire downed Georgia Southern 22-12 in Birmingham, Alabama last Saturday. No. 1 James Madison began its 2016 national title defense with a 34-14 win at East Carolina on Sept. 2. Villanova nearly gave the CAA a third such win, as the seventh-ranked Wildcats took Temple to the wire before falling 16-13 this past weekend on a field goal with one minute remaining.