After weeks of promise and hope that a new year would bring a strong start, the Elon University football team’s season started with a reality check as Gardner-Webb University trounced Elon 31-6 Saturday afternoon at Rhodes Stadium.
“It hurts. A lot,” said sophomore wide receiver Corey Joyner. “Everyone takes pride in Elon, and when you have that kind of pride, it hurts a lot [when you lose]. You can see it in the locker room and everywhere.”
The Phoenix was tied at three with the Runnin’ Bulldogs at the end of the first half, but Gardner-Webb ran 34 times in the second half for 241 yards — an average of 7.1 yards per carry — en route to a four-touchdown second half. Head coach Rich Skrosky said it was, “obviously a disappointing day.”
“Early on, we ran a lot of eight-man fronts to try to get another hat up front,” Skrosky said. “Those third-and-three or -four downs, those are the downs you have to win. It seemed like we weren’t able to get off of blocks at times and we lost leverage on the ball a couple times. We weren’t able to out-number them, so we tried to do it with pressure and that didn’t work either.”
Gardner-Webb junior quarterback Tyrell Maxwell led all players with 154 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown, and redshirt sophomore running back Khalil Lewis carried it 23 times for 109 yards and three touchdowns. In total, the Runnin’ Bulldogs bulldozed the Phoenix for 327 yards in the game.
“I don’t really know what to tell you,” said senior defensive lineman Nick Groll. “Honestly, I just think we lost a little bit of composure towards the end. It’s easy to lose juice when things aren’t going your way, and I think that’s what happened.”
Throughout the day, Elon shot itself in the foot, committing three personal foul penalties and multiple pre-snap penalties. Skrosky didn’t mince words when talking about how the team unraveled.
“Our composure was not good today,” Skrosky said. “I told that to the staff and I told that to the players. We talked about maturity throughout the offseason, and one of the four C’s we talk about is composure. We didn’t have a lot of composure today as a team.”
Elon’s offense struggled all day, going 5-for-14 on third downs and picking up just 14 first downs. The Phoenix especially struggled in the ground game, rushing for just 59 yards on 17 attempts.
Sophomore starting quarterback Connor Christiansen left the game after one drive in the third quarter with a shoulder injury. Skrosky said he didn’t know the extent of the injury at the time. Sophomore quarterback Daniel Thompson finished the game.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs got on the board first when junior kicker Paul Schumacher made a 25-yard field goal with 3:24 left in the second quarter.
A fumble gave Elon the ball back at the Gardner-Webb 46-yard line with just more than a minute left. Elon drove down to the three, but could not punch it in for a touchdown. Senior kicker John Gallagher hit a 20-yard field goal with three seconds left to tie the game.
Gardner-Webb scored on the opening drive of the third quarter, with the big play being Maxwell’s 28-yard run down the Elon sideline. Lewis punched it in from a yard out for his first career touchdown.
Elon got three points back on a 39-yard field goal by Gallagher, but the Runnin’ Bulldogs struck right back with a 7-play, 76-yard drive, which was capped off by Lewis’ eight-yard touchdown run.
In the fourth, Maxwell scored from four yards out with 11:43 left, and Lewis ran in his third score from 19 yards out with 3:24 left.
It’s the first road win for the Runnin’ Bulldogs over Elon since Oct. 31, 1992, when they won 28-23 at Williams High School. Elon and Gardner-Webb met eight times in between that game and Saturday, including four games at Elon’s home field.
The Phoenix drops to 0-1 in 2016, and travels to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte next Saturday. Kickoff is at 6 p.m.