Inside the Davidson Renaissance: Outside weight room and goal-line stand

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There are milestone moments, events along this journey; Scott Abell knows them well.

Building a culture in Year 1, one resolute enough to withstand four-straight losses, all by one score and a couple in overtime.

A goal-line stand securing a season-ending win against Butler that same 2018 season for a 6-5 record and a winning campaign. Adding to that foundation with a bedrock-solid eight-win performance in 2019.

Flash-points signifying genuine life in Davidson College's football program more so than a rebirth of something rooted in transiency.

“Year 1, our main goal was to establish our culture here; you have to have some type of culture to lean on,” Abell tells FootballScoop. “Culture really helps you out, stops that slide from going on. We thought we did that Year 1, our first winning season in a decade here.”

“Year 2 was how do we establish the program. This program had never been established for a period of time. Never had sustained success. We had to follow up and build on Year 1. And as you are going into Year 3, talk about the next step, and it was was really taking the Pioneer Football League championship. That's never been done here. It's just a huge credit to our players and our staff, our community here.”

The Wildcats, courtesy their April 3 win at San Diego for that program's first conference loss in five years, are Pioneer Football League champions and Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs-bound in just Year 3 for Abell. They face perennial FCS power and Ohio Valley Conference champion Jacksonville State Saturday on the road.

Oh, they have done so without stepping foot inside the weight room on their regal campus just north of downtown Charlotte, N.C.; home since its founding in 1837 to the acclaimed liberal arts institution with 23 Rhodes Scholars.

Davidson has not lifted weights together indoors as a team since early 2020.

Davidson has not lifted weights together indoors as a team since early 2020.

COVID-19 protocols in the state have not allowed teams to congregate indoors, so the Wildcats mend that problem by moving their weights outside. Still, there's been no bench-pressing since pre-COVID-19 times in early 2020.

“We've been lifting outside since we got back; we've yet to set foot in our weight room since the pandemic,” Abell said. “We had to be creative in so many ways. We've reminded the troops on a regular basis what we're working for and that was to become a premier program in our league.

“When we got back in January, it was probably roughest time for us in terms of Covid. We really had only had one full-contact practice before we opened up. There's still that anxiety here. We'll test (Monday) and throughout the week, hope they all come back negative. I think our guys have handled it incredibly well.”

All teams are still navigating this unprecedented spring pandemic season; testing three times a week or more, knowing a spate of positive tests can end a game – now a season – at any moment.

Davidson, however, is the only team to encounter all this and still lead the FCS in rushing at 293 yards per game. Without three-year All-Pioneer Football League selection and the school's all-time leading rusher, Wesley Dugger, after his September declaration to sit out the spring and transfer.

“One thing we've been harping on here, it is the power in persistence,” says Steven Jackson, the Wildcats' special teams coordinator and run-game coordinator. “That was something we kept talking to our kids about. Their ability and their success is going to come from their persistence. You don't get this done in one day. We didn't turn this program around in one day.

“The credit goes to the kids, leaving school early due to the pandemic and they send us home. We didn't get back here until August. Classes are virtual. To have a season taken away from them in the fall, it was really an emotional roller-coaster for a lot of them. That quote just really rang true, the power is in our persistence. And we tell them, when you go through it, it's always worth it in the end. And now? There's no question what there answer would be.”

Even this protracted journey through a season is revealing Abell's program foundation.

“I think first thing was different layers of how we dealt with this and the emotions of it all,” Abell said. “I think at the beginning, personally, we had all this momentum, I thought the programs it would really hurt would be those that needed spring to regroup.

“Once we got into summer and the fall season was cancelled, programs who struggled going into the pandemic had time to reboot. Those of us who had built all this momentum, I got worried. I thought we had a good plan for the fall. We competed against each other as best we could and within COVID guidelines. For the most part, our kids came back. We lost a couple seniors who opted out, lost an All-American (Dugger). But we've been recruiting to our system since we got here, and this kind of showed our young players were really built and made for our system.”

The Wildcats face the No. 4 nationally seeded Gamecocks with a team that leans on its ground attack, evidenced not only by the nation's-best rushing offense but also the second-best average time of possession, and an opportunistic defense. They have a plus-five turnover margin.

“We focus on how do you create turnovers? and that's be physical and get to the football,” Jackson says. “How many red hats can we get to the ball? We're going to hang our hat on being able to run to the ball and be physical. I think that's something to me that jumps off the tape, turnovers just equates to that and any time you can get the ball back to one of the top offenses in the country, that's a good thing.”

POWER 3 CONFERENCES

Nine of the 16 FCS playoff teams come from just three leagues – the Missouri Valley Football Conference (five), Colonial Athletic Association (two) and the Big Sky (two).

The MVFC got the No. 1 overall seed with South Dakota State and also saw North Dakota, North Dakota State, Missouri State and Southern Illinois all selected. The programs had been mainstays in the FCS national rankings throughout this truncated spring season.

Weber State was Big Sky Champion and hosts Southern Illinois; Eastern Washington, with one of the nation's most explosive offenses, did enough to earn one of the six at-large bids when it closed its regular season with a seven-point win against Idaho to finish 5-1.

While JMU is the South Division champion and No. 3 national seed, Delaware is the CAA's automatic-bid qualifier because it had one more conference win than did the Dukes.

LONG WAIT OVER

Virginia Military Institute had not claimed a Southern Conference title since the 1970s and had never punched a postseason playoff ticket.

It did both during the weekend when it handily defeated rival The Citadel and also secured outright the Southern Conference crown for the first time since 1977.

VMI gets the postseason's shorted road-trip with a chance to make yet another statement in a season full of them. The Keydets have a 57-mile trip north on I-81 to face the tournament's No. 3 overall seed, James Madison.

Though scarcely an hour apart, the two programs have not played in almost 12 years.

HIGH-FLYING BEARKATS

Sam Houston State is the No. 1 scoring offense in the postseason, at almost 45 points per game, and finished second nationally among teams to play at qualifying number of games for the postseason.

Three of the FCS' top-10 scoring offenses are in the playoffs: Sam Houston State, Eastern Washington (40.7) and Monmouth (41.7).

DEFENSE OPENS DOORS

Eight of the nation's top-16 scoring defenses at the FCS level helped their teams to the playoffs, including James Madison at less than 10 ppg. as stingiest among the postseason participants.

Delaware, Holy Cross, South Dakota State, Sam Houston State, Weber State, Monmouth and Jacksonville State rounded out the grouping. None of those teams allowed an average of even 18 points per game.