WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — It had been 36 hours since junior defensive lineman Dondre Howell lifted his hands in the air in celebration of the Elon University football team’s win at the College of William & Mary Saturday night.
As he reflected on the moment, he admitted his emotions nearly overtook him, an instant of pure bliss and triumph.
“On that last play of the game, I threw up my hands and I almost cried,” Howell said. “We’ve been through a lot, with everything going on these last few years. But we’ve trusted the process, trusted [head coach Rich Skrosky], and [assistant coach Gerald Chatham]. I was thrilled about the whole entire day.”
Howell arrived at Elon in 2013, redshirting his first year. Since stepping onto campus, Howell and his fellow seniors-by-class-credit players have been through a coaching change, a conference change and the death of a teammate.
In that time, Elon has struggled on the field, only winning nine out of 39 games. But it’s the ninth one that has stood out nationally, and will stand out in the lore of Elon football for years to come: Elon, 27, No. 8 William & Mary, 10.
It’s just the second victory over a Top-10 opponent since the Phoenix moved to Division I. The other time it happened was Oct. 20, 2007, when the 24th-ranked Phoenix won at No. 6 Wofford College 24-13.
It’s also Elon’s highest-ranked win over a ranked opponent when Elon was not ranked. In the five previous upsets, the highest-ranked opponent Elon beat was No. 13 North Carolina A&T State University on Sept. 23, 2000, when the Phoenix shut out the Aggies 13-0.
Based purely on ranking alone, this constitutes as Elon’s biggest upset. It’s a fact that wasn’t lost on the players.
“We’re excited,” said junior defensive back Chris Blair. “To beat a Top-10 [team] for the second time in history? The feeling is indescribable. Me and my teammates — we believed before we came out. We had doubt from everybody else, but we had belief in ourselves and belief in each other, and we got the win.”
The players celebrated loudly in the locker room after, with freshman defensive back Khalil Moore describing the mood in the room as “electric.”
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Moore said. “But it’s not something that I’m surprised about. We work hard each and every day and throughout the off-season, and we have so much talent. I’m not surprised. I’m definitely excited, but I’m not surprised. It was definitely coming.”
Howell has seen where Elon was ranked in each of the previous two seasons: at the bottom of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), picked to finished 12th of 12. While the Phoenix finished 3-5 in conference last year — good for a four-way tie for seventh place — Howell hopes that this win will help raise the program’s awareness inside the conference.
“Coach [Skrosky] doesn’t like us paying attention to the polls, but they ranked us 10th,” Howell said. “We kind of turned some heads and got some respect out of some of those teams and coaches. It’s an eye-opening experience. In this conference, we honestly believe that everyone can be beat.”
That theme was prominent throughout the program in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s victory, especially for sophomore running back Malcolm Summers, who led the team with 26 carries for 120 yards — both career-highs — and two touchdowns.
“William & Mary is a great team, but when we came into this game, we knew we were playing another team. We didn’t look at their ranking,” Summers said. “They put their shoes on the same way we put our shoes on. As far as the win, you can’t ask for anything else.
“To come into CAA play and shock people? I think that’s what we did tonight: We shocked a lot of people in the CAA. It gives us a lot of momentum going to the next game.”
Moore added, “[This game] sends an alarm, an alert that Elon’s here to play. It’s a new season, and Elon’s here to play. Don’t overlook us, stay woke, and we’ll see you when we see you.”
The win is massive in conference play, as the Tribe was picked second in the preseason poll compared to Elon’s 10th.
But it’s also a striking contrast to Elon’s play early in the season, when the Phoenix opened the year with a 25-point home loss to Gardner-Webb University, a team picked to finish fifth in the Big South Conference, considered far weaker than the CAA.
At the time, it was the only loss to a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent by a CAA school. It’s still only one of three such losses in the CAA. Elon’s lone win before Saturday was a week earlier, a 26-3 win over Fayetteville State University, a winless Division II team.
Elon turned around from scoring 26 points at home against a Division II team, to scoring 27 points on the road against the eighth best team in the FCS, earning a historic win in Elon’s program history in the process. But Skrosky wants the team to be careful of overemphasizing the impact of the victory.
“You have to take it for what it is, and I’m extremely proud of the kids,” Skrosky said. “We have to keep it in perspective. It’s a game — a game that I think can help us and build confidence and do what these things do — but we’ve got to make sure we come in tomorrow and go to work. It’ll be interesting to see how the kids respond to a moment like this.”
Moore believes that the response will be one of renewed hunger for the season ahead.
“This game drives us,” Moore said. “It gives us more hope. It gives us more confidence. We belong here. We can play with these guys and every team. It drives us to get ready for the next game and the seven games that are left.”