You probably already know this, because JMU's first conference loss since 2015 is the talk of FCS Football right now. With the departure of a massive senior class, many fans and foes alike wondered this past off-season if 2018 would finally be the year a CAA program broke through against Mike Houston's squad. We finally have the answer.
But why Elon? How exactly did the Phoenix do it? And what happens next?
Let's get into it.
Winning the Line of Scrimmage
It's tough to beat a team as good as JMU without winning the battle in the line of scrimmage, and that's exactly what Elon did. The Dukes' defensive line is arguably the best position group in the CAA, yet Elon's offensive line punched gaps in the front and offered plenty of room for tailback Malcolm Summers to run. Summers' 186 yards is the highest rushing total ever given up to an opposing runningback by a Mike Houston JMU team. As a team, Elon averaged 5.3 yards per carry, which is double what NC State averaged against JMU back on September 1.
Summers' consistent success as the game went on opened up other opportunities for Davis Cheek in the passing game, which is why Elon found more success pushing the ball down the field in the second half. More on that later.
On defense, Elon contained JMU's powerful running game despite playing only three down lineman. Madison averaged 2.6 yards per tote across 40 carries. No player netted more than 35 yards on the ground, forcing JMU to rely more heavily than it would like on production via the passing game. Ben DiNucci was 24-of-41 for 316 yards, but his accuracy seemed just a touch off at times, limiting the situational efficacy of JMU's passing game.
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Third And Forever
JMU has been so offensively gifted under Mike Houston and OC Donnie Kirkpatrick that it's easy to forget about basic principles of football while watching them. But JMU did a poor job staying ahead of the chains on Saturday, often needing to extricate themselves from difficult Third and Long scenarios. Across 19 third-down plays, Madison faced an average of 3rd and 8; on eight of the 19 plays, it was at least 3rd and 10. Going for it on fourth down wasn't much of an option, either — JMU punted six times, and only once did they face anything shorter than 4th and 8.
Facing a top-level defense like Elon, consistently facing third and long is too much of a challenge, even for a team with as many gifted offensive playmakers as JMU. Elon deserves credit for clogging up JMU's run game while still having enough left over on the back end to complicate JMU's passing attack, but the Dukes helped out with plenty of dropped passes and missed throws. To that end, it was reminiscent of the game JMU played in Frisco this past January.
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The Big Play Bug
JMU's defense is so good that it's almost impossible to mount a sustained drive against them. However, the Dukes have been susceptible to big, momentum-shifting plays under Mike Houston. The Dukes don't lose too often, but when they do, there's usually some sort of inexplicable blown coverage or miraculous connection involved. From the late screen play at NC State, to the 50-yard touchdown pass to North Dakota State's Darrius Shepherd last January, to Stefan Cantwell's pass to Drew Batchelor through double coverage in the final minutes of the 2017 Weber State game, the way to beat JMU is to roll the dice and come up big. That's easier said than done, obviously, but Elon sprung two separate 50-yard plays in Saturday's game, both of which either advanced or capped drives that ended with touchdowns. In a three-point game, that's pretty darn big.
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The Deification of the Dukes
No team is immortal. Every fan knows that. But JMU's CAA winning streak has gone on for so long that its players may have been just a tiny bit victimized by their program's own greatness. As the first half drug on and the Dukes had no touchdowns on the board, it became obvious to Elon players (and anyone else watching, for that matter) that the Phoenix were more than capable of winning this game. Pop Psychology and the power of belief have a role to play in nearly every big upset in college football, and this game was no different.
So… Now What?
It was obvious to anyone paying attention on the East Coast that, sooner or later, Elon was going to be a very good football program. Curt Cignetti is a first-rate coach who has brought in outstanding recruits and a strong coaching staff. Much like JMU, Elon is investing heavily in its athletic infrastructure, and the Phoenix are starting to see dividends in the win column in several sports. Football is the latest to score a marquee, program-defining win — Saturday's win over JMU was the first-ever win against a Top-5 team for the Phoenix.
JMU will be fine. The Dukes are still the most talented team, top-to-bottom, in the CAA. They'll still win eight or nine games; they'll still make the playoffs; they're still a legitimate threat to return to Frisco. The only thing that's changed for the Dukes is the win/loss record.
The more interesting question now regards where and how to place Elon. The Phoenix are 4-1 with the best win of the young FCS season and in the driver's seat for a CAA title, though a canceled game with William & Mary could come back to haunt Elon if the CAA Championship comes down to percentage points. Either way, Elon seems poised to roll to a top-3 finish (and an accompanying playoff seed) if it continues its winning ways.
It's time to recognize Cignetti, Cheek, Summers, Warren Messer and the rest of the Phoenix as a legitimate top-level player on the FCS stage. This isn't some phony call for respect after an upset — Elon is a balanced team with high-level players that can win in multiple ways. JMU didn't just lose; Elon beat them at its own game, playing fast, physical and relentless football.
Elon isn't just up-and-coming anymore. The Phoenix are here.
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