Football, Game 5: The Citadel vs. Elon

In the 1880s a train depot was built at what would eventually become the town of Elon College (yes, the town was called “Elon College”).  By 1888 there was a post office, and once you’ve got a post office, well obviously the next thing you need is a college, so some local assemblymen from the United Church of Christ founded Elon College (the actual school, not the town) in 1889.  The first year there were 76 students enrolled.

By 1931, Elon had dramatically increased its enrollment, and had 87 students.

Okay, that’s a little unfair.  Elon’s enrollment was affected by the Great Depression, and there was also a fire in 1923 that devastated the school, but by the mid-1930s, Elon was in trouble, having briefly lost its accreditation and barely keeping its financial ship afloat.  Elon was barely hanging on, but then caught a break when Army Air Corps pilots trained on campus during World War II, which helped the school survive (shades of the relationship between the U.S. Navy and Notre Dame, with one difference being that Elon didn’t have a famous football team).  After the war, veterans and the G.I. Bill pushed enrollment past 700.

It was still a sleepy little college, geared towards local students commuting from their homes, until the early 1970s.  Its most notable graduate may well have been Doug Moe.  Since 1973, however, Elon has made an amazing transformation into a respected regional university under the leadership of two presidents.  Fred Young, who led the school for 25 years, made the decision on behalf of the institution to buy a lot of nearby land, which in hindsight was an excellent decision.  It increased the campus size threefold, and thus enabled the school to expand dramatically.

Young also appears to have been a pro when it came to fundraising, a tradition carried on by his successor, Leo Lambert, who developed a plan for Elon’s future even more ambitious than Young’s.  A list of all the buildings and programs added at the school in just the last 10 years (and it’s a long list) can be found in this article about Lambert:  Link

Elon has done a good (if not great job) of setting big goals and meeting those goals by raising a ton of money and having a coherent master plan.  The speed in which all of this has been done is truly remarkable.  How was it done so quickly?  In the linked article, Lambert says:

“Private schools can act quickly and can pursue their own destiny without having to deal with a state bureaucracy.  We can build architecturally cheaper, lovelier and more on time than any state university.”

Well, then.

Of course, there are limits, and Elon may be reaching them.  Lambert suggests the goals contained in the next strategic plan will cost at least $500 million, which is a lot of money, especially when you consider that 46% of Elon’s 24,000 living alums have graduated within the past 10 years.  The school has tapped a lot of old money already, but the new money won’t be coming in for quite a while, at least from alumni.

On the other hand, Elon can continue to raise money from other sources, as it is situated in the largest population area (50-mile radius) in the Southern Conference, a region that also has the highest average household income in the league.  It will be interesting to see how the school continues to progress.

Elon had two sustained periods of excellence in small-college (NAIA) football.  The first of these occurred in the 1930s, under the direction of head coach D.C. “Peahead” Walker.  In 10 seasons Walker would win four North State League championships in football, and several other titles in baseball and basketball, as he coached all three sports at the school (during the summers he played minor league baseball).

Walker was an Alabama native who was a popular speaker on the rubber chicken circuit (occasionally teaming up with his buddy Frank Howard).  He would leave Elon to coach at Wake Forest, leading that school to two bowl games (including the first Gator Bowl in 1946; the Demon Deacons defeated South Carolina 26-14).  Walker is still the alltime winningest coach at Wake Forest.  He also coached the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes.

Elon’s greatest run of success came during the 1970s and early 1980s under head coaches Shirley “Red” Wilson and Jerry Tolley.  Wilson had been a veteran North Carolina high school coach before taking the Elon job.  He would coach there for ten seasons, winning five league titles and making the NAIA playoffs in three of those years.  Wilson then left to become head coach at Duke and was replaced by Tolley, who had been his top assistant at Elon.

Tolley would only lead Elon for five seasons; he had already decided that he did not want to coach past the age of 40.  In his final two years, Elon would win consecutive NAIA national championships.  Tolley’s career record as a head coach:  49-11-2.

After winning the second title (3-0 against Pittsburg State; Elon had seven turnovers, but the Gorillas missed five field goals) Tolley walked away from coaching, but not from Elon, where he briefly became a fundraiser before taking a job at LabCorp (whose CEO was on the Elon board of trustees).

Tolley has also written several books on football drills and served two terms as mayor of Elon College (the town).  He is now the director of annual giving at the school.  One gets the sense that Tolley is one of the influential figures in Elon’s rise as an institution over the past quarter-century.

In 2001 Elon College (the school) became Elon University; Elon College (the town) became Elon; and the football program got a new stadium.  The year before, Elon had changed the nickname of its athletic teams from the “Fightin’ Christians” to the “Phoenix”.  (Kind of a boring nickname, if you ask me.)  Elon had completed its transition from the NAIA to NCAA Division I in 1999.

The coach who led the Phoenix into its new era of football was Al Seagraves, who had been a longtime assistant to Charlie Taaffe at The Citadel.  Seagraves would coach Elon for eight seasons, with his last year being Elon’s first as a Southern Conference school.

After that season (in which Elon was 2-10) Seagraves was replaced by Paul Hamilton, who would coach the Phoenix for two years.  After consecutive 3-8 seasons, Hamilton would be succeeded by current Elon coach Pete Lembo, who is now in his fourth year at the school.

Lembo had been the coach at Lehigh before taking the Elon job.  The previous coach at Lehigh?  Kevin Higgins.  Lembo replaced Higgins when the current head coach of The Citadel took a job as an assistant with the Detroit Lions.  Lembo had been an assistant under Higgins at Lehigh.

Elon has improved its record in each of Lembo’s three seasons, going 5-6, 7-4, and 8-4, narrowly missing the playoffs last season after losing its last two games of the year.  A 24-16 loss at Appalachian State probably didn’t hurt the Phoenix’s cause, but the season-ended 26-3 drubbing handed out by Liberty certainly did.  If Elon had won that game, it likely would have advanced to postseason play.  It wouldn’t have deserved to do so, however.

I normally want SoCon teams to succeed in out of conference play, and don’t like ceding potential playoff berths to other leagues (one of these years the selection committee will give every team in the CAA a bid), but I wasn’t too upset to see Elon fold in Lynchburg.  That’s because the Phoenix had won a game earlier in the season that it should have lost…to The Citadel.

Last year’s 27-23 Elon “victory” in Charleston was an end-to-end officiating debacle.  It featured (among other things) a timing mistake that led to an Elon field goal, a reversed call on a turnover that should not have been reversed (that led to another Phoenix field goal), and an unbelievably poor spot on a fourth down play that gave the ball (and the game) to Elon.

I hope the officials for Saturday’s game are better.  They could not be worse.

Note:  The referee for last year’s contest worked the game between Appalachian State and The Citadel last week without incident (not counting microphone follies), and has also called an Elon game already this year.  I’m assuming he won’t get the assignment for The Citadel-Elon, but this is the Southern Conference we’re talking about, so you never know.

Elon is 4-1 entering Saturday’s game, with wins over Davidson, Presbyterian, Georgia Southern, and Furman, and a loss to Wake Forest.

The Phoenix beat the Presbyterian 41-7 at PC, in a game in which the Blue Hose finished with just two yards net rushing.  Conversely, PC rushed for 204 yards at The Citadel two weeks ago.  Elon has held all four of its FCS opponents to 88 yards net rushing or less.

Elon needed a last-second field goal to get past Furman in Greenville, a game in which the Phoenix struggled to run the ball (49 total yards) but made up for it with passing yardage (374).  That was the 15th time in Scott Riddle’s career that he had thrown for 300+ yards in a game, a league record.

The junior had earlier established a Socon mark with 218 consecutive passes without an interception before throwing a pick against Georgia Southern.  Interestingly, Riddle is also serving as Elon’s punter this season.

Riddle has thrown for 618 yards and 5 touchdowns against The Citadel in two previous meetings.  321 of those yards and 4 of the TDs were to Terrell Hudgins (who also scored a TD against the Bulldogs the year before Riddle arrived at Elon).

Hudgins set the all-Division I record for career receptions against Furman.  He now has 330 catches after pulling in 16 of Riddle’s throws last Saturday.  He is two or three games away from breaking Jerry Rice’s FCS record for receiving yardage in a career.

Riddle and Hudgins make for a tough combo.  Last season the Phoenix also ran the ball well against The Citadel (187 yards), the kind of balance that Pete Lembo wants in his offense.  Brandon Newsome, now the third-string tailback for Elon, had 134 of those yards; he is one of three Phoenix running backs with at least one career 100-yard rushing game.

Elon’s defense has 19 sacks so far in just five games and held Georgia Southern and Furman to 14 and 12 points, respectively.  While Elon’s offense is averaging almost 460 yards total offense per game, Phoenix opponents are only averaging 216 yards per contest.  The Elon D has forced eight turnovers so far this season, with six of those being interceptions.

Elon’s defense is holding opponents to a 24% rate on third down conversions, one reason why the Phoenix have a five-minute per game time of possession advantage.

Elon placekicker Adam Shreiner is 6-8 on field goals, including the game-winner against Furman with 4 seconds to play last week.  He has missed one extra point.  The Phoenix do not have particularly impressive kick or punt return statistics so far this season.

This game is being billed in some quarters as a matchup of Andre Roberts vs. Terrell Hudgins, but I think the key to the game will be the Bulldogs’ defensive front seven versus the Elon offensive line.  The Citadel must get pressure on Riddle, which won’t be easy (in 208 pass attempts, Elon quarterbacks have been sacked 11 times).  In last year’s game Riddle was sacked once, for a two-yard loss.

The Bulldogs also must force turnovers.  Appalachian State did not turn the ball over against The Citadel.  Just one turnover may have made the difference in that game, and the matchup with Elon will be no different.  Bulldog defenders are going to have to make plays on the ball.

If The Citadel plays as well overall as it did last Saturday against the Mountaineers, then I believe the Bulldogs will win the game (SoCon officiating caveats aside).  The question, then, is whether or not The Citadel is capable of putting together two good games in a row against quality opposition.  We’ll find out on Saturday.

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