Feisty Phoenix find ways to rise to the occasion

Coach Curt Cignetti has led Elon football to eight straight wins by thriving in tight games

First-year Elon coach Curt Cignetti has led the Phoenix to eight straight wins. (Courtesy Elon)

Statistics can be an effective means of evaluating the performance of a team or player, especially in this day and age of advanced analytics.

But they aren’t always perfect.

Sometimes the numbers on the stat sheet and the numbers on the scoreboard just don’t add up.

That’s been the case with the Elon football team this season, which despite being outscored 223-220 by its opponents, has reeled off eight straight wins and risen to No. 7 in the national FCS rankings.

The disparity is as much a product of the Phoenix’s innate knack for winning close games as it is the hole it dug for itself with an opening week 47-13 loss to FBS opponent Toledo.

First-year coach Curt Cignetti’s team showed off its cool under pressure again Saturday by withstanding a fourth quarter comeback to hold off Colonial Athletic Association rival Towson 33-30 in double overtime.

“I think our team has a great mindset and at the end of these games, when they’re close, we believe we’re going to find a way,” said Cignetti, a former NC State assistant who inherited a team that finished 2-9 last season. “We play with great poise, getting 11 guys doing their job, kind of playing it like it’s 0-0.

“In about three of these games, we’ve had the opportunity to win by 10, 14, 17 points. I’d like to see us take that step. But right now I’ll take the result.”

Elon (8-1, 6-0 CAA) will try to make things easier on itself Saturday when it takes to the road to play 16th-ranked New Hampshire.

It had a chance to take some of the pressure off itself last week building a 27-10 lead early in the fourth quarter of its homecoming game behind the passing of quarterback Davis Cheek and the 100-yard rushing efforts of Brelynd Cyphers and De’Sean McNair. But Towson nearly spoiled the celebration by rallying to tie the score in the final 10½ minutes.

It took a late defensive stand that forced the Tigers to settle for a 27-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.

After the teams traded field goals on the first extra possession, Dondre Howell opened the door for Elon by blocking Towson’s attempt at a go-ahead field goal. Owen Johnson then delivered the victory with a 26-yard kick of his own.

It was Johnson’s third game-winning kick this season and the Phoenix’s fifth win by three points or less. Its largest margin of victory was just eight points, 25-17 against William & Mary on Oct. 7.

Despite all the close calls, Cignetti isn’t worried about his team running out of luck with a game on the line.

“I don’t really think that way,” he said. “We just prepare daily the best we can to put ourselves in the best position to have success. We’re 8-1. That’s our body of work. When these games go down to the wire, the last three or four minutes, our guys have proven that they can and will make the play.”

As for the scoring disparity over the course of the season, that’s just one of those statistical anomalies that happen from time to time.

“We played a really good Toledo team in our first game and the game really was a lot closer than the score ended up being,” Cignetti said, adding that conference standings, wins and losses, and national rankings are much more important than the cumulative number of points it has scored and allowed.

And if there’s anything Cignetti and the Phoenix know well, it’s a close game.