It’s an often overused and overstated quote from a defeated coach: “Our players gave tremendous effort.” Upon hearing this, most sports fans know their team lost the game and the coach just wants to credit his players with not giving up.
But in the case of Elon head coach Pete Lembo, in a statement released about Saturday’s playoff loss to Richmond, “Our players gave tremendous effort” is a drastic understatement.
A lot of defenses across the country, not just in the Football Championship Subdivision but all of college football, would have extraordinary trouble playing a game in which its leading tackler was hurt on the second play from scrimmage. When that happened to the Phoenix defense as sophomore linebacker Josh Jones was driven off the field, the Phoenix defense could have broken before the offense had taken the field.
But the Phoenix rallied and brought new meaning to the bend-don’t-break strategy.
Although the unit allowed the Spiders to gain 400 net offensive yards, it only surrendered 16 points. Seventy four of those yards came on one play, a quarterback bootleg run by Richmond senior Eric Ward.
After Elon freshman kicker Adam Shreiner missed wide right on a 27-yard field goal with 90 seconds remaining to tie the game, a few fans headed to the exits. Others who stayed in their seats put on coats, hats and were ready for the clock to hit zero so they could try to beat the dreaded game traffic.
There was just one problem — the Phoenix defense was not ready to call it a day, and after stuffing three Spider runs they got the ball back to the Phoenix offense with 25 seconds to go. It was as if the defense said to Richmond, try defending National Champions, “No, you’re going to have to do more to win this game.”
While 25 seconds at the end of a basketball game can seem like an eternity, 25 seconds at the end of a football game for an offense with no timeouts left is not much time.
But junior quarterback Scott Riddle, who played with more heart and determination than I have ever seen from a quarterback, commanded one last Phoenix drive down to the Spiders’ 30-yard line. As Shreiner’s 48-yard field goal attempt fell short, so did the Phoenix’s chance of earning a rematch with Appalachian State University on Saturday.
And who’s to say players are the only people at football games to show heart? On Saturday, there were no Elon students socializing at the football game, as is common at Rhodes Stadium. Nobody left at halftime because there was something more important to do on a Saturday afternoon. The Phoenix faithful stood behind the team and did their best to neutralize any home-field advantage for the Spiders.
Forget the 74-yard touchdown run by a quarterback. Forget the 27 net rushing yards for the Phoenix. Forget the two missed field goals with less than two minutes left in the game. Forget settling for six points on three trips into the red zone. Forget two plays before the first field goal attempt in which Phoenix receivers were inches from scoring touchdowns.
What should be remembered about the biggest football game in Phoenix history is how hard the players fought to the final whistle. The truly inspiring play of the defense and Riddle’s last-minute heroics should be beacons of what is to come for a rising Phoenix program.
It should be remembered that senior wide receiver Terrell Hudgins had another huge game for the Phoenix with 12 catches for 167 yards and a touchdown.
Most importantly, it should be remembered how hard this team worked throughout the season and how much heart it showed in a gut-wrenching loss.