Elon encounters difficult defense with CAA crown at stake

ELON — Curt Cignetti started with speed.

As the Elon football coach took more inventory of James Madison’s dominant defense one day this week, reviewing video clips on the wall-sized projector screen in his office and then rewinding them for inspection again and again, he chose “a lot of speed” as the beginning of an assessment.

Then came what the reigning national champion Dukes do with it.

“They cover well, they rush the passer well, their linebackers really run laterally well,” Cignetti said. “And very rarely do you see them bust assignments. They’re where they’re supposed to be.”

Eleventh-ranked Elon (8-2 overall, 6-1 Colonial Athletic Association) plays host to No. 1 James Madison (10-0, 7-0) in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Rhodes Stadium, with an upset victory giving the surprising Phoenix a share of its first conference title in 19 years of competing on the Football Championship Subdivision level.

While containing veteran quarterback Bryan Schor and James Madison’s highly productive offense poses a considerable task, the challenge of meeting this championship moment could hinge on how Elon’s offense fares in navigating against the Dukes’ exceedingly difficult defense.

Opponents have yet to find a solution.

James Madison rates among the best in the FCS in 10 defensive categories, a status that includes national rankings of first in scoring defense (giving up less than 10 points per game), total defense, pass defense and interceptions, and second in takeaways and quarterback sacks.

James Madison has forced 27 turnovers on the season, 19 of which are interceptions, while not allowing an opposing team to score more than 14 points in any game.

The Dukes yielded just 20 rushing yards and held explosive Richmond to nearly 150 total yards below its season average during last week’s rivalry game. The week prior, James Madison had seven sacks at Rhode Island and surrendered only 18 total yards in the second half. The game before that, James Madison supplied a shutout of New Hampshire.

So on and so forth.

“It’s exciting thinking about the competition we’re going to face Saturday,” Elon offensive lineman Ikenna Nwokeji said. “I know these guys are going to bring it, so we’re going to have to execute to the best of our ability. We’re going to have to be on point. It’s going to be an effort-type game, where the team that works the hardest and executes the most wins.”

Cignetti said Elon “just never really found a rhythm” on offense during last week’s 16-6 loss at New Hampshire. The Phoenix, which arrived on fire behind quarterback Davis Cheek, was held to its fewest total yards (315) since Oct. 7, an output that included 31 rushing yards, Elon’s first time this season running for less than 117 yards in a game.

Even so, Elon’s three missed field goals and two potential touchdown catches that vanished — a holding penalty wiped out a deep strike to Corey Joyner for a score and Kortez Weeks didn’t secure the ball while crashing to the turf in the end zone — were pivotal sequences that could’ve turned that cold afternoon into another victory for Elon.

“Those are momentum swings in games,” Cignetti said. “Those are plays we’ve been making pretty consistently. We didn’t make the plays and we didn’t run the ball well. I think everybody involved in the run game’s got to do a better job.”

Cignetti said in some ways, the end of Elon’s eight-game winning streak has allowed for a deeper examination of the team’s habits this week and perhaps a heightened emphasis on the process of continuing to improve.

“A lot of times what happens when you go on a winning streak like we did, there might be some subtle things that are slipping or sliding,” he said, “but you’re getting the result.

“When you don’t get the result, it’s a lot easier then to go back and highlight those things with an attentive audience. It’s a time where everybody’s sort of got to look themselves in the mirror and say, ‘Am I doing everything I can to be the best I can be?’ ”