A Civil War Between Aaron Mellette & Demetrius McCray
On a crisp late autumn afternoon, in a scene much like the ones played out a century and a half before, on battlefields throughout the North and South, two armies emerged from tunnels at opposite ends of Rhodes Stadium for a Southern Conference showdown. The November 19, 2011 matchup of Appalachian State versus Elon University was not only a rivalry game between two North Carolina schools, just 130 miles apart, tucked tightly into what had been the cradle of the Civil War, but also an epic battle between two of the FCS’s finest players, Elon wide receiver, Aaron Mellette, and Appalachian State cornerback, Demetrius McCray.
It was a war waged on the Carolina plain all afternoon, in a series of small skirmishes and bigger battles, with McCray matched up head to head with Mellette on 57 of Mellette’s 64 offensive snaps. In this combat, the advantage would swing back and forth, and, like the game itself, would not be resolved until Elon’s final play. And, befitting the rich history of the of the area in which the game was played, each on-field battle directly parallels a battle from the American Civil War, with Mellette representing the Confederates, and McCray standing-in for the Union Army. Although a detailed examination of all of the game’s confrontations would yield a more comprehensive study, an analysis of just the major clashes should do justice to this noteworthy struggle.
Mellette fires the first salvo on Elon’s first offensive play from scrimmage. Elon lines up in Posse personnel, 3 WRs + 1 RB + 1 TE (in this case lined up as an H back), in 2X2 formation, with Mellette out wide on the numbers. McCray is in press-man position, with a 2-deep safety look, in a probable cover-2 man scheme. At the snap, Mellette takes an outside release into a 9-route, which turns into a 43 yard completion to the ASU 37 yard line. Mellete fades his route to midway between the numbers and the sideline, giving Elon QB Thomas Wilson enough room to fit the ball in without leading the receiver out of bounds.
McCray is only a step behind, the step he lost by not getting enough of a jam at the line. The free release he affords the receiver puts him in an immediate trail position, and, although he has good recovery speed, it’s not enough to overtake Mellete, who cradles in the perfectly delivered ball. Mellete’s split (wide on the numbers) and outside release should key McCray to look for two routes, the fade or the comeback. He’s in good position for the comeback, but a step behind for the fade. This play is a case of good coverage, a better route, and a perfectly executed throw, and is largely similar to the Battle of Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War, which ended in a rout of Union forces. This first encounter on the gridiron is a decisive victory for Mellette, with McCray quickly out of his backpedal, and, like the Yankees at Bull Run, soon in full retreat.
For Play #2, Elon utilizes Houston personnel (3 WRs + 2 RBs), in 2X1 receiver formation, with Mellete aligned on the numbers to the open side of the formation. ASU sneaks the strong safety into the box, and plays a single high safety in a man-free (cover-1) scheme. Pre-snap, McCray fades inside leverage, then bails into off-man coverage, actually retreating as the ball is snapped. Mellette’s inside release into his vertical stem should key McCray for either the dig or corner route. McCray is in good position for the corner, but Mellete runs the dig and gains three full yards of separation on the cornerback after his break.
All Thomas Wilson has to do is make sure that his pass clears the dropping linebacker, who only gets 7 yards on his drop, and Mellette will have an easy completion and room to run. The free safety has already been drawn to the other side of the field by the flat-9 combination run by the Z and slot receivers, and will be late getting to Mellete. However, Wilson’s pass is underthrown, and what should have been an 18-20 completion for a first down inside the red zone, is instead easily picked by the linebacker. In Wilson’s defense, the right defensive end beats Elon’s left tackle cleanly on the play and hits Wilson as he’s releasing the ball. In reality, Mellete has again won this confrontation, but like the Battle of Chattanooga, where Federal soldiers assaulted the seemingly impregnable Confederate position on Missionary Ridge, ultimately taking Chattanooga, our second gridiron skirmish turned into a completely unexpected victory for McCray’s defensive squadron.
Play #3 marks Elon’s first march inside the red zone, and provides a legitimate scoring opportunity. On second and eight, from the 14 yard line, Elon comes out in Posse personnel (3 WR + 1 RB + 1 TE), in 2X2 formation, with the tight end lined up as an H back. It’s the identical formation that they opened the game with, when they hit Mellette for the big gain on the fade. ASU counters with a Cover-1 (man free) look, with McCray in press coverage on Mellette, who’s wide on the numbers, to the field side of the formation. McCray correctly plays outside leverage, because his help is on the inside, but, again, he gives the receiver a free release. When Mellette takes a hard inside release off the snap into a quick slant, McCray is a step slow and behind.
This should be an easy completion, but Mellette drops the well-thrown pass. McCray is in good position to stop the touchdown, and he makes the would-be tackle, but it should have been an 11 yard completion, and first and goal at the 3 yard line. Since McCray isn’t close enough to disrupt the pass, and it’s more a concentration lapse by Mellete, this fight is a draw, and is eerily reminiscent of the Battle of Brandy Station, where Union horsemen launched a surprise attack on Jeb Stuart’s cavalry forces. Each confrontation was marred by multiple mistakes, and, ultimately was inconclusive, with no clear winner.
Play #4 brings a 1st and 10 on the ASU 32 yard line, and it’s a perfect down, distance, and field location for a shot at the endzone. Elon brings in Posse personnel (3WR + 1 RB + 1 TE) in a 2X2 receiver set, with Mellette wide to the field side, on the numbers. When Mellette was last aligned similarly in this formation, he took an inside release and ran a successful dig. Here, he takes the same release, but counters with a corner route, looking for the score. Pre-snap, ASU drops the strong safety into the box, with the free safety sliding to the deep middle. McCray is off-camera at the snap, but based on the visible defenders, it looks like man-free, with McCray head up on Mellette, with possible help from the free safety to the inside.
McCray is so badly beaten on the route that, it appears, that he fully expected safety help over the top. Without knowing the exact defensive call, it’s impossible to definitively assign blame, but if it’s cover-1, McCray has to guard against the 7-route, because his help is to the inside. From where the free safety aligns at the snap, it will be nearly impossible for the safety to cut off the corner route to the field side, even if he reads the play correctly immediately. On the other side of the field, there is a 9-route that the free safety ignores completely, and the only other receiver on Mellette’s side of the field, the slot WR, runs a short dig, which wouldn’t likely be the responsibility of the free safety. So, it’s possible that the safety is out of position, and should have been part of bracket coverage on Mellette. McCray still should be closer to Elon’s top receiver, and was most likely anticipating the dig route. This confrontation is an unquestioned win for Mellette, and parallels the largely one-sided Battle of Richmond, where the Yankees made several futile stands, before all were routed or captured, opening the “Gateway to the North” for the Confederacy.
Play #5 occurs with Elon again approaching the red zone; this time, it’s 2nd and 7 from the ASU 36 yard line. Elon brings in Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR) in a 2X2 formation, with Mellette lined up wide on the numbers to the boundary side. Originally, McCray was aligned on the field side slot receiver, but ASU calls time out, and, when Elon shows the same formation, now McCray is heads-up on Mellette. From the receiver’s split and Mellette’s outside release, McCray knows that it has to be the 9-route or the comeback, and he immediately opens his hips and starts running.
McCray stays with Mellette, step for step, but Wilson’s throw on the back shoulder fade is perfect, and McCray never snaps his head around to find the ball. Mellette flashes plus body control, good tracking skills, and solid hands, in adjusting and hauling in the 32 yard reception. It’s tough to kill McCray for falling victim to a perfectly executed pass play, but, like the Union soldiers at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, who gave a hard fought, valiant effort, before falling to the largest assault force of the war, McCray, here, is likewise overwhelmed by a superior opponent.
The remainder of the game’s first half featured no major engagements, just a series of smaller battles of lesser overall impact. At halftime, Elon, who jumped out to a 21-0 lead, is now ahead 24-14. Through a series of successful campaigns, Aaron Mellette has amassed 149 yards and a touchdown, and has left Demetrius McCray, like much of the Union army in the early stages of the Civil War, battered and bloodied. But, war is a marathon, not a sprint, and there is still an entire second half of football to be played. Perhaps, there’s a little Ulysses S. Grant in Demetrius McCray, and he can rally the troops for a rousing comeback.
For Play #6, Elon utilizes Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR), in a 2×2 formation, with Mellette wide to the boundary side of the field, and McCray, though initially in off-man coverage, moving into tight press position at the snap. Off the snap, Mellette takes a hard outside release, looking to elude the jam, but McCray gets a solid initial punch, and re-routes the receiver to the sideline.
Elon quarterback Thomas Wilson’s throw on the fade is underthrown, as the timing has been disrupted by the physical press at the line. Mellete doesn’t adjust to the ball quickly enough, and he can’t get back into the play, even just to break up McCray’s diving interception. McCray wins this confrontation convincingly due to a solid jam, anticipation of the route, an excellent break on the ball, and sure hands. Until this moment, McCray hadn’t been physical at any point in the game. This play, much like the Battle of Vicksburg, where Grant’s seige of the city effectively split the Confederacy in two, marking a key turning point in the war, marks the primary turning point in this Southern Conference conflict.
Here, Elon again brings in Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR) in a 2×2 look, with Mellette just wide of the numbers on the boundary side. McCray counters by lining up in off-man position, deceptively turning his body, so he appears to be staring down the quarterback, and paying little attention to Mellette. With two deep safetys, and McCray’s body positioning, Wilson and Mellette anticipate zone coverage, and try to hit the 9-route between the corner and safety levels.
At the snap, McCray jumps into an aggressive press-man position, and re-directs Mellette toward the boundary, when he tries to get a clean outside release. The jam disrupts the play’s timing, and slows Mellette to the point that McCray is stride for stride with him, in good position for the interception. Wilson takes just a short drop, and, with Mellette blanketed, is forced to throw the ball away. McCray’s victory here is won at the line of scrimmage with guile and deception, rather than athleticism or physicality, and mirrors the Battle of Yorktown, where an outmanned Union brigade used camouflage and misdirection, first to disguise their initial strength, then to slip away and escape.
Play #8 features Elon again in the gun, with Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR), in 2×2 formation, with Mellette on the field side, all the way out on the numbers. Mellette’s alignment, (not in his customary spot on the boundary side in this formation), should be a tipoff to ASU defenders that Mellette will be the primary target. The receiver takes an inside release, and runs a short dig route, for what should be a seven yard completion.
McCray is playing flat-footed, off-man technique, and reacts quickly to the underneath throw, demonstrating solid closing burst. However, he completely whiffs on the tackle, as Mellette spins away, stiff arms the safety, gains an additional six yards, and gets out of bounds, to save precious seconds, on this final drive for the potential go-ahead score. ASU got just what it wanted, but McCray’s poor execution cost him this battle; if the safety doesn’t make the eventual tackle, Mellette could have gained an additional fifteen yards or more. This surprise victory for Mellette, on the flanks of the defense, harkens back to the Confederate triumph at Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson’s force engulfed the exposed flank of the Union’s 11th corps, leading to larger than expected triumph.
For Play #9, Elon stays with Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR), again in 2×2 formation, with Mellette in his customary spot on top of the numbers on the boundary side. McCray, once more, tries to win with deception, initially giving a zone look, before attacking Mellette at the snap with an aggressive jam. This time, Mellette anticipates the move, and beats the press cleanly with a hard inside release and good hand work.
McCray is so thoroughly beaten that he grabs Mellette, incurring a defensive holding penalty, but Mellette is strong enough to fight through the hold, and he hauls in the pass for a hugely important 33 yard gain, leaving Elon inside the red zone with 1:48 still left in the game. To his credit, McCray does track down the All Conference receiver, and make the tackle, preventing a catastrophic outcome. As in the Battle of Fredericksburg, where Union troops mounted a series of futile frontal assaults, leading to a staggering number of casualties, McCray’s overly aggressive, poorly executed frontal attack leads to a one-sided whitewash.
For Play #10, Elon stays with their Jet personnel group (1 RB + 4 WR), and again lines Mellette on the numbers on the boundary side; however, pre-snap Elon motions Mellette to a stack formation with the slot receiver, with McCray mirroring Mellette’s movement. Mellete runs a short pivot route, with a quick curl followed by a break to the flat.
Anticipating the route perfectly, McCray breaks hard and arrives with the throw, separating Mellette from the ball with a solid hit. Between the low throw and the big hit, Mellette has little chance of making the catch; however, even a perfect throw would, at best, have resulted in a meager two yard gain, due to McCray’s anticipation and execution. McCray’s counter assault resembles Grant’s counter offensive at the Battle of Shiloh, where Confederate troops held the early advantage, before the Yankees forced General Beauregarde’s army from the field, in a hugely important encounter.
For the game’s last throw to Mellette, a crucial third and ten from the ASU 18 yard line, with the Phoenix needing a touchdown to win, Elon came out in Jet personnel (1 RB + 4 WR), in 2×2 formation, with Mellette wide on the numbers, to the field side. Mellette runs a 5 yard smash route, with McCray initially lined up a full seven yards off the line of scrimmage. With McCray’s off-man setup, and the 15 yard depth of Appalachian State’s safetys, Elon is looking for RAC yards from Mellette, but McCray closes extremely quickly and makes a solid tackle at the 14 yard line, allowing just a five yard gain.
McCray plays perfect off-man, flat-footed technique, entrenching his feet in concrete until the receiver clears the 3-step release. If McCray retreats into his backpedal at the snap, Mellete will have enough room and time to turn upfield and use his running skills to pick up the first down, and possibly more. But McCray stares down the gun barrel and holds his ground, driving on the throw, and making the open-field tackle on an elusive runner.
When, on the game’s next play, Wilson’s fourth down pass to another receiver is batted down by ASU’s Jeremy Kimbrough, the win is secured, but it was McCray’s textbook play on third down that sealed Elon’s fate. Like the Battle of Gettysburg, where Lee had marched all the way to Pennsylvania, before being repelled, in a defeat that marked his last real chance to take the North, Elon marched the length of the field, on their final drive, before one final, decisive victory by Demetrius McCray.
Mellette finishes the game with 14 receptions for 236 yards and 1 touchdown, but, ultimately McCray makes the clutch plays to keep him out of the endzone on the final drive, and secure the win for Appalachian State. It was a Civil War throughout, with overwhelming wins, surprise assaults, misdirection and deception, drawn battles, and a battalion sized amount of mutual respect between the two combatants. Typically, 57 head to head plays between any two players would breed contempt and animosity, but, at the end of the battle, as had been the case throughout, Mellette and McCray kept picking each other up, and, with a helmet pat, or a nod, just made their way back to their huddles in preparation for the next assault.
Ultimately, the real winner in this combat was the college football fan, who not only witnessed a battle for the ages, but also gets to see the fight renewed on October 6, 2012, when Elon visits Appalachian State. After Elon’s heartbreaking loss last year, and the high expectations surrounding each team, this year’s game is sure to be another Southern Conference showdown. And, with both Aaron Mellette and Demetrius McCray returning to the battlefield, more than likely, it will be another Civil War.