Phoenix opens CAA slate against Richmond

Fast, physical and relentless are the go-to descriptions of choice for first-year coach Curt Cignetti and his players, the words often used to depict what they’re working to build as the new identity of the Elon football team.

“Every time you go out there you’re sort of re-establishing your brand,” Cignetti said. “There shouldn’t be any doubt in anybody’s mind. It’s just a matter of playing your style of ball, your brand of ball.”

As Elon embarks on league play in the Colonial Athletic Association tonight and meets powerful Richmond, the first challenge of what’s sure to be an exacting conference journey, the Phoenix could be in the process of adding another characteristic to what it’s creating.

Elon has shown an ability for balance while winning back-to-back games, after defeating Furman largely on Davis Cheek’s big passing performance (301 yards, three touchdowns) and then downing nationally ranked Charleston Southern while mostly relying on Malcolm Summers’ monster rushing effort (30 carries, 178 yards) against a physical defense.

Already, three games into the season and Cignetti’s tenure, the Phoenix has proven capable of finding success — and moreover, victory — in different manners.

“We want to be dynamic,” Elon offensive lineman Alex Higgins said. “We want to be able to do it both ways and I think now, going into the CAA, it’s going to be really important to be able to use both to our advantage.”

Early on last week, with Cheek having opened by hitting Corey Joyner for a 34-yard pass out of the gate, Elon’s second drive, a 93-yard touchdown march, utilized 10 straight running plays that ultimately set the table perfectly for Cheek’s toss to Kortez Weeks for a 28-yard score.

Weeks was wide open in the flat on the near sideline, unaccounted for by the Charleston Southern defense. That completed a drive Summers fueled with 58 rushing yards.

“Every quarterback loves to throw the ball,” Cheek said, “but if the running game is working, with the backs like we’ve got who can just pound the rock, I say give them the ball, 110 percent. You love to see that as a quarterback, because when the running game is working, that helps you out.”

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Cheek, the true freshman, said he’s pumped to start CAA play and experience the competition. He said he has heard many liken the league to the Football Championship Subdivision’s version of the rugged Southeastern Conference.

With five different national champions since 2003 — Richmond won it all in 2008 — and four different teams reaching the semifinal round of the playoffs during the last four years, the CAA certainly has earned its reputation among the best in the FCS.

Richmond, at No. 8, is one of four CAA teams ranked among the Top 15 in the FCS this week.

“They’re an upper-tier team in the conference and have been for a while,” Cignetti said. “Really good football team.”

A shootout might be required tonight if Elon is to upset the Spiders and realize the program’s first three-game winning streak in six seasons.

Richmond broke school scoring milestones while blasting Howard 68-21 last week, as senior quarterback Kyle Lauletta went 26-for-29 for 321 passing yards and a school-record six touchdowns. Lauletta leads the FCS in passing yards (1,173) and touchdown throws (11) on the season.

Meanwhile, Cignetti said Elon took a step forward last week with its 226 rushing yards and average of 5.1 yards per carry as a team. But, as he pointed to video clips of Richmond’s defense in his office this week, Cignetti said the onus tonight figures to lean toward Cheek and Elon’s passing attack.

“When you watch tape of these guys, sometimes all 11 guys are within 7-8 yards of the football,” Cignetti said, “so they’re doing everything they can to prevent you from running the ball and trying to make you throw the football.

“You can’t get away from who you are, but you still have to be smart. We’re going to make some plays in the pass game. We’re going to have to win some 1-on-1 matchups. It’s press coverage on the outside. Guys are going to have to separate and get open. We’re going to have to deliver the ball and protect.”

Elon (2-1) at No. 8 Richmond (2-1)

Kickoff: 6 tonight

TV: Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic

Radio: WSML-FM 104.5, WSML-AM 1200

Where: Robins Stadium (capacity 8,217), Richmond, Va.

Coaches: Curt Cignetti (first season at Elon). Russ Huesman (first season at Richmond).

Series: Richmond leads 7-0

Extra points: Elon is 2-1 in Colonial Athletic Association openers since joining the league in 2014. … Richmond has won 20 of its last 28 regular-season games in the CAA and 14 of its last 15 games overall at home. … Huesman, who previously coached Southern Conference member Chattanooga for eight seasons, went 3-2 against Elon from 2009-13, when Elon was part of that league. … Elon, coming off a victory against then-No. 16 Charleston Southern, has defeated nationally ranked opponents in consecutive weeks once in its Football Championship Subdivision history (18 years). That happened in October 2007, the era of former coach Pete Lembo and stars Scott Riddle and Terrell Hudgins. … Richmond’s Cortrelle Simpson (373 yards) and Dejon Brissett (343 yards) rank among the top four receivers in the FCS this season while quarterback Kyle Lauletta leads the FCS with 1,173 passing yards and 11 touchdowns. … Elon’s stable of rushers should be back at full strength. Brelynd Cyphers (144 yards on the season), who started Elon’s first two games, returned to practices this week after missing the Charleston Southern victory due to a concussion. … Elon defensive end Marcus Willoughby and linebacker T.J. Speight are expected to make their first starts of the season tonight. Speight, a sophomore, has yet to start a game in college.