McFeely: Elon beat James Madison, which was unthinkable two years ago
How bad was Elon football two years ago? So bad that when the Phoenix played eventual national champion James Madison two years ago, the Dukes had their quarterback take kneel-downs midway through the fourth quarter in a show of sportsmanship. Or pity.
The final score of that game was 63-14 in favor of James Madison. That was sandwiched between a 51-0 thrashing in 2015 and a 31-3 beatdown in 2017.
Those days are over. Like, really over.
Elon, a tiny private school in North Carolina, upended No. 2-ranked James Madison 27-24 at Bridgeforth Stadium in a game that will shake up the upper levels of Division I Football Championship Subdivision.
The Phoenix came into the game ranked 10th in the country, a season after making the playoffs for only the second time. They'll likely shoot up in the ratings. JMU, which has designs on returning to Frisco, Texas, to try to win a second national title in three years, now has two losses and will tumble in the rankings.
Given Elon's ranking, this game doesn't quite reach the level of Indiana State or South Dakota beating mighty North Dakota State at the Fargodome—which happened in the middle of the Bison's run of five straight national titles—but it is still a shocker.
Elon has never won a playoff game, losing first round games in 2009 and 2017.
"They are who we thought they were," JMU coach Mike Houston said, channeling his inner Dennis Green. "It's a valuable learning experience for some of our guys that haven't been through something like this before. It's one of those things that you can preach and preach and preach and sometimes you need a painful lesson of what your message is. Unfortunately, we got one today."
The improbability of this one was off the charts. JMU hadn't lost at home since Dec. 5, 2015, in a playoff game against Colgate. The Dukes had won 19 straight at Bridgeforth. It was Houston's first home loss as coach of the Dukes.
And it came in an un-JMU manner. The Dukes had two touchdowns called back because of penalties behind the plays. They had three turnovers, including a critical fumble by tight end Dylan Stapleton with 4:16 left in the fourth quarter at the Elon 26 that gave the Phoenix a chance at the winning touchdown drive. Elon ran for 212 yards, led by the magnificent Malcolm Summers with 186. JMU allowed 498 total yards, an unheard of figure in the last couple of years.
"It's weird. We don't lose many games here that we should've won," JMU receiver Riley Stapleton said. "It hurts."
But don't think this was the Dukes giving away the game. No, no and no. Elon was solid, better than advertised, and was just as physical up front—on both sides of the ball—as JMU. The Phoenix are stout defensively. The Dukes didn't run the ball effectively and supremely confident quarterback Ben DiNucci was on the run all day. Elon linebacker Warren Messer is a dude.
"I'm sure it shocked a lot of people, but it didn't shock us because we can be a good football team when we play right," Elon head coach Curt Cignetti said.
Summers called the victory a culmination of a "journey." The senior was on the Elon team that went 4-7 in 2015 (51-0 loss to JMU) and 2-9 in 2017 (63-14).
"That's the beauty of the journey we all take," Summers said. "You're going to have some missteps along the way in life, but that's why you keep pushing."
The beauty for Elon right now would be looking at the CAA standings. There are the Phoenix, tied at the top with a 2-0 conference record. And there is James Madison, below them at 2-1.
It was unthinkable two years ago, when JMU was taking pity on Elon at the same stadium in which Phoenix quarterback Davis Cheek took a knee to run out the final 21 seconds.