Phoenix goes without prime playmakers in loss to Blue Hens

NEWARK, Del. — Suddenly missing its top weapons on offense and cast in a mode of trying to make do, Elon couldn’t do enough.

The Phoenix fell 28-16 to Delaware in Colonial Athletic Association football Saturday, its four-game winning streak expiring here at Delaware Stadium, as the elation of last weekend gave way to the deflation of injuries to standout quarterback Davis Cheek and stud running back Malcolm Summers, Elon’s driving forces.

“We absorbed some big hits,” Elon coach Curt Cignetti said. “Our kids fought hard and played hard, and we lost to a good team. And so that’s life. We had a lot of adversity, it was a hard-fought game, and we’ve got nothing to be ashamed of. They made the plays at the end and we didn’t.”

Ranked No. 5 nationally in the Football Championship Subdivision and coming off its seismic takedown of James Madison, the three-time league champion and FCS power, Elon turned to backup quarterback Jalen Greene with Cheek feared to have suffered a significant knee injury, and had gained the necessary position for defeating Delaware and perhaps delivering another purposeful result, albeit on vastly different terms.

Elon led 16-14 midway through the fourth quarter, after a pair of Skyler Davis field goals lifted the Phoenix (4-2 overall, 2-1 CAA) out of a second-half deficit.

From there, the ending went awry as the Blue Hens (4-2, 2-1) finished with authority, supplying two touchdowns during the game’s final 7:01 to claim their first victory against an opponent ranked among the Top 5 in eight years.

“The feeling of losing is terrible,” Elon defensive back Daniel Reid-Bennett said. “We didn’t play to our potential. We all could’ve played better.”

So many times under Cignetti, still only in his second season, Elon has figured out the way to secure victory, however winding or unlikely. The Phoenix entered Saturday having trailed in the second halves of eight consecutive road games — and had won six of them.

This followed a different path.

Delaware quarterback Pat Kehoe threw three touchdown passes on the day, his last one coming on a third down in the face of pressure from blitzing Elon linebacker Matt Baker. Kehoe stood in and lofted a 23-yard touchdown to Vinny Papale, the ball dropping over Elon defensive back Jarquez Bizzell, to put the Blue Hens ahead to stay at 21-16.

Then the backbreaker arrived after an Elon three-and-out series. Kani Kane carried five straight times, moving Delaware from midfield and ultimately scoring on a 2-yard plunge with 4:02 remaining. That capped Kane’s 124-yard rushing effort.

“We just put a little too much pressure on our defense,” Cignetti said. “We couldn’t sustain or hold the ball long enough on offense. They’re going to make plays eventually, and they did. The only thing that I was disappointed in defensively is that we couldn’t stop the run at the end of the game.”

The beginning became jarring from an Elon perspective.

De’Sean McNair started at running back with Summers, he of the CAA-leading 118.4 rushing yards per game, suited up and standing on the Phoenix’s sideline, but ultimately unavailable. Cignetti said afterward Summers is “in sort of a day-to-day mode” due to an issue with the hamstring that he tore last season, this latest injury suffered near the conclusion of Elon’s conquering of James Madison, when he ran for 186 yards.

Then Cheek went down awkwardly in the first quarter, on Elon’s second possession. Cheek was scrambling away from Delaware defensive lineman Brendan Hall when his left leg buckled and he crumpled to the turf, a non-contact situation that left the quarterback in visible pain.

Later in the first half, Cheek pounded the sideline training table in apparent frustration as he sat there with his left leg propped up. He walked with a pronounced limp after the knee injury.

“The initial prognosis isn’t great,” Cignetti said of Cheek’s status.

Elon’s defense performed assertively early on, producing three takeaways during the first half, with two of them generated by Reid-Bennett yanking the ball from Kehoe and forcing fumbles that interior lineman Tristen Cox recovered.

With 6½ minutes to go in the first half, Elon led 10-0 and the margin could’ve been more, had a Greene shovel pass to McNair for a touchdown not been wiped out by a holding penalty on offensive lineman Chad Nelson.

Greene finished 11 of 26 passing for 140 yards. He ran for 36 yards.

“I think Jalen did a great job stepping up in that role and being the quarterback for us after Davis went down,” Elon receiver Cole Taylor said. “Obviously it’s a sad day, a sad loss, but we’ll rebound. We’ve faced adversity in the past and we’ve come out on top. This one, we just didn’t come out on top.”

Greene’s 52-yard bomb to Taylor set up Jaylan Thomas’s 9-yard touchdown scamper late in the first quarter. Davis connected on his first field goal after the penalty on Nelson to make it 10-0. Elon increased its usage of Thomas, a true freshman who hadn’t played in the last three games due to injury, and mostly relied on him and McNair to handle the rushing load.

Delaware got on the scoreboard 11 seconds before halftime on Kehoe’s 7-yard pass to tight end Charles Scarff, a quick drive aided by a roughing the passer penalty against Elon’s Baker.

Kehoe found Scarff for another touchdown in the third quarter and Delaware had its first lead of the game at 14-10.

“It was definitely a momentum switch,” Reid-Bennett said about that stretch, “and coming out of halftime we didn’t take that momentum over again.”