ELON, NC — As of November 25, 2017 on the home page of Rhodes Stadium Michael Purcell and Torrece Williams could only watch as Elon narrowly missed his first FCS playoff win, losing to Furman 28-27 in the first round.
Five years later, that defeat still hurts. But when the Phoenix take the field for a playoff rematch with the Paladins at 12:00 p.m. Saturday, this time in Greenville, SC, Purcell and Williams will get their revenge.
“The first thing that came to my mind (when the matchup broke) was the college year where we had to sit there and watch our team sadly lose that game,” said Williams, who ran the redshirt alongside Purcell in 2017. We’re in a position where we’re leaders, we’re key players and we can actually put ourselves in a position to win, so it’s just great to have this opportunity.
“We’ve always kept in mind that we had to go back to the playoffs and now that we’re here it’s time to show ourselves.”
Having also made the 2018 playoffs, Purcell and Williams are the only Elon players to play for three playoff teams. The two previous trips were unforgettable. But after going 12-16 combined for the past three years and missing the postseason, this year’s performance holds even greater meaning for the duo.
“It was definitely humiliating when we got our butts kicked, and in ’17 and ’18 I took it for granted to make the playoffs,” Purcell said. “But that happens when you have a lot of experience and talent, and that comes in cycles.”
It’s certainly widespread this year.
The experience of the Phoenix is perhaps most noticeable in the offensive line, which after a few bad years has been instrumental in the team’s success. With five players starting in all 11 games – led by Purcell in the middle – the unit has paved the way as Elon has rushed over 120 yards in 10 of 11 games. It has also excelled at quarterback protection Matthew McKaytie for the second the fewest sacks are allowed in the CAA (1.5 per game).
“We’ve had some history of being a pretty bad offensive line, so we’re going to use that as a chip on our shoulder,” Purcell said. “Playing 15 to 20 games with those guards next to me and the tackles next to them, that continuity, that experience and just knowing what the guy next to you is thinking and doing means a lot.”
On the other side of the ball, Williams has helped the Phoenix defense have one of the most dominant all-around seasons in the program’s FCS history. Elon enters Saturday inside the country’s top 25 in sacks (9th, 3.09 per game), scoring defense (13th, 19.9 points per game), turnovers forced (18th, 21), rushing defense (19th ., 118.1 yards per game) and overall defense (24th, 333.7 yards per game). It has kept its opponent at 10 or fewer points four times.
“In the back of our minds, we always knew we could be a great defense…” Williams said. “But our defense is still not happy with what we’ve done. We give up three points in a game and we’re pissed. We give up 10 and we’re pissed. We believe we are a defense that can close teams out of any game.”
Despite those strengths, the Phoenix’s road to the playoffs has been anything but straightforward.
After opening the season with a hard-fought loss at Vanderbilt, Elon racked up five straight wins to take him up to 14th nationally. Just as quickly as a postseason berth seemed to be a reality, the Phoenix dropped back-to-back games in Rhode Island and New Hampshire in October. Suddenly Elon found itself outside of the playoffs, but it responded with resounding success, winning its last three regular-season games to set the stage for Saturday’s showdown in Furman.
Purcell and Williams both point to the belief that this season — particularly amidst their two-game slide — the Phoenix exuded the greatest resemblance between this year’s team and the ’17 and ’18 teams. That, Williams said, should prove crucial in the postseason.
“It all boils down to that love of who puts that extra work into their tech, who puts that extra work into their assignments and things like that,” he said. “I think this year everyone wants to do the right thing and be the one who hits, not the one who gets slapped in the face.”
— ELON —