Once again, the Elon University football team, this time fresh off a bye week, held a lead early in a Southern Conference game.
But for the first time this season, the Phoenix was able to hold onto that lead, clinging to a lead that looked like it was going to slip away in the second half when the Western Carolina University Catamounts scored three straight touchdowns.
But the final score read: Elon 42, Western Carolina 31.
Elon senior quarterback Thomas Wilson was 20-for-28 for 412 yards and a career-high five touchdown passes to help lead the Phoenix (3-4, 1-3) to its first SoCon victory this season.
“It’s huge for the team overall, for our confidence, for our morale,” said Elon sophomore linebacker Jonathan Spain. “We haven’t had a win in four weeks, including the bye week. So that’s a long time to not have a W. So it just feels great to beat a team and get on the right track.”
The Phoenix came out firing, getting a 28-0 lead 4:36 into the second quarter. Three of Wilson’s touchdown passes came in that span.
“Jumping on them early, executing offensively, about as well as we can, it felt really good,” Wilson said. “It felt great to come out on top. I know the defense loves it when they can play with a lead.”
One of those plays was exemplary of the Western Carolina defense. The Catamounts played most of the day without a deep safety, allowing the Phoenix to get several deep passes for big gains. On one play, Wilson heaved a bomb to senior tight end Chris Harris, who had beaten his defender and outran him for a 75-yard touchdown to make the score 14-0 with 7:06 left in the first quarter.
“All we had to do, receiver-wise, was just beat the man off the ball,” Wilson said. “We’re going to try to take advantage of those match-ups and try and connect on them on some big and some long touchdown passes.”
At halftime, it looked like Elon was going to run away with the game. The Phoenix led 35-13 and were out-gaining the Catamounts on offense 384-211.
But the Catamounts used true freshman quarterback Troy Mitchell the whole second half after Mitchell split time with sophomore Eddie Sullivan in the first half. And it made a difference.
“Thank God they didn’t start him, because it could have been different,” said Elon head coach Jason Swepson. “When they put him in, it became a different ball game.”
Mitchell threw for 121 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 39 yards in the second half. After a fumble by Elon senior wide receiver Jeremy Peterson, the Catamounts cut the deficit to 35-23 after senior running back Michael Johnson’s eight-yard touchdown run 4:28 into the third quarter.
After an Elon three-and-out and a missed field goal by Western Carolina, Elon freshman running back Tracey Coppedge, who finished the game with seven carries for 56 yards and a first quarter touchdown run, lost a fumble and the Catamounts were in Elon territory at the 42-yard line.
On third-and-11, the momentum solely in the hands of Western Carolina, Spain sacked Mitchell for a loss of seven yards, forcing a Catamounts punt.
“That quarterback was running all over us,” Spain said of the play. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to get this sucker,’ because he was just killing us. (Sophomore defensive lineman) Gary Coates had, I think, two tackles in a row on that, which was really good. Then I lined up and end and I was patient and shot a gap and he went in it and I sacked him.”
On the ensuing Elon drive, Wilson hit senior wide receiver Aaron Mellette for a 47-yard touchdown pass. Mellette, who finished the game with five receptions for 154 yards and three scores, caught the ball at the 40-yard line, made several defenders miss and outran the rest of the defense for a score and a 42-23 Elon lead with 1:12 left in the third quarter.
“We just try to get him the ball as much as we can, when the coverage asks for it, and if not I’m going to bounce it off and go to my next read,” Wilson said. “They gave us the opportunity today to give him the ball in one-on-one situations where he could turn them into touchdowns and that’s what he did. He’s capable of doing just about anything when he has the ball in his hands.”
Western Carolina tacked on another touchdown thanks to Mitchell’s 47-yard chuck to freshman wide receiver Spearman Robinson with 9:11 left in the fourth quarter. Robinson finished the day with nine catches for 139 yards.
Elon took over on its own 21 with 9:04 remaining on the clock. On a drive that Swepson defined as an “extremely important” drive, sophomore running back Karl Bostick ran six times for 21 yards as the Phoenix killed nearly five minutes of clock before punting.
“I knew if we could just take some time off the clock in the fourth quarter that we would have a chance to win, to finish out the game,” Swepson said. “We kept the lead and didn’t lose the lead, so that was good. We did what we had to do with nine minutes left in the game. We kept them out of the end zone and we ate up the clock.”
Elon’s defense forced two consecutive three-and-outs, and the victory was complete.
It was the first conference win of the season for the Phoenix, which had dropped three straight to Georgia Southern University, Wofford College and Appalachian State University before the bye week.
The Phoenix continues the SoCon schedule next week against Furman University, a team it upset last Nov. 12. To run the table, something several players have acknowledged is necessary to make the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, Spain said Elon needs to act like its already in the postseason.
“We’ve got to practice like it’s playoffs, because it basically is,” he said. “If we lose, we’re out, we’re done. If we win out, we still have a chance to maybe do something at the postseason. We’ve just got to attack it every single day.”
- Wilson’s five touchdown passes beat a mark he set twice. The senior had four touchdown passes against Furman last year and West Virginia State University Sept. 15.
- The Phoenix was without starting senior linebacker and defensive captain Blake Thompson, who was out with an injured thumb. Senior Thonda Taylor started at middle linebacker, which moved Spain to the outside. Taylor was second on the team in tackles with 8, including sharing a sack with senior defensive lineman Olufemi Lamikanra.
- Elon senior kicker Adam Shreiner became the program’s all-time leader in PATs with 135. Andrew Wilcox (2005-2008) is now second with 130.
- With his performance today, Mellette is now second in the SoCon with touchdowns (39), passing former Citadel wide receiver Andre Roberts (37), and third in receiving yards (3,670), passing former Marshall University wide receiver Mike Barber (3,520).