Blue Hens-Dukes: Matchups, storylines, injuries and more ahead of Delaware’s playoff game against JMU
Here is a look at the top storylines heading into Delaware’s opening-round matchup against James Madison. Kickoff at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, VA, is slated for 3 p.m.
The injury bug finally bites
Delaware has been relatively unscathed by injuries this season. (20 of Delaware’s 22 opening night starters started against Villanova and the two that didn’t, cornerback Nijuel Hill and center Collin Wallish, were active and played).
That was until Saturday, when running back Kani Kane was limited, and defensive lineman Cam Kitchen and quarterback Pat Kehoe left the contest against Villanova. Linebacker Ray Jones also left the game, but returned to play all of the second half.
It all starts with Kehoe. The redshirt junior, who has started every game behind center for the Blue Hens this season, exited in the first quarter due to concussion symptoms. Monday, Delaware Head Coach Danny Rocco said his team was “optimistic” about Kehoe’s chances of playing, but that he has had every conversation imaginable with his staff regarding other scenarios.
If he can’t play, redshirt freshman Nolan Henderson could get the nod, but he was sidelined at Tuesday’s practice, according to the News Journal’s Kevin Tresolini. As was redshirt senior J.P. Caruso, the transfer from Appalachian State who started the final five games of the 2017 season. Boston College transfer Darius Wade also continues to sit out with a shoulder injury. He has yet to play for the Blue Hens.
So here’s where the #BlueHens are heading into @NCAA_FCS playoffs @JMUFootball. Top 3 QBs @pkehoe23, @NolanHendersonn and @JPCaruso10 all sidelined. @Legendaryking__ and freshman @paoletti236 running the offense in practice. Tough situation. @DelawareFB #caafb
— kevintresolini (@kevintresolini) November 20, 2018
Danny Rocco wouldn’t comment on #BlueHens QB situation. @Therealdwade4 bad shoulder. @JPCaruso10 shoulder in sling. @NolanHendersonn ankle in boot. @pkehoe23 concussion protocol. @Legendaryking__ maybe back at QB. @paoletti236 may get 1st snaps @JMUFootball in @NCAA_FCS. #caafb
— kevintresolini (@kevintresolini) November 21, 2018
The injuries left quarterback-turned-wide receiver Joe Walker and freshman Anthony Paoletti taking reps at Tuesday’s practice, according to Tresolini. Rocco closed practice from the media for the rest of the week on Wednesday.
Walker’s second-to-last start at quarterback came against James Madison last season. It was his last full game at the position, as Caruso relieved him after two series against Stony Brook, fueled a comeback win and started the rest of the season.
Against the Dukes in 2017, Walker completed five of 11 passes for 47 yards. He threw a touchdown, an interception and committed another turnover on a backwards pass to running back Kareem Williams that resulted in a decisive 23-yard scoop and score by Dukes defender Andrew Ankrah. Walker added 46 yards on the ground on 13 attempts.
Over his first three seasons as a starting quarterback, Walker averaged 80.5 passing yards per game, completed 49.1 percent of his passes and threw eight touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
This year, Walker earned third team All-CAA honors at wide receiver. He and Vinny Papale are the first Delaware receivers to surpass 500 receiving yards since Michael Johnson in 2014. Walker caught 32 passes for a team-high 671 yards. His 21.0 yards per reception led the CAA and ranked fourth nationally.
Paoletti is a highly-regarded recruit out of Marple-Newtown High School in Delaware County. In three seasons as a starter there he threw for 7.048 yards and 73 touchdowns. The true freshman has not seen any collegiate action.
Kitchen injured his knee against Villanova, according to Rocco. It’s a short-term injury, but could require him to miss Saturday’s playoff game against JMU. Kane, according to Rocco, is “more likely than unlikely” to play against the Dukes. He played against Villanova, but was limited to a few snaps and did not receive a carry.
James Madison wanted a seed
The Dukes enter the FCS playoffs as an unseeded team for the first time since 2014.
It was Head Coach Mike Houston’s first year with the program. In the time since, James Madison has won three CAA titles and has appeared in two national championship games. The Dukes won it all in 2016.
James Madison defeated Towson 38-17 last Saturday, to finish the regular season 8-3 overall and 6-2 in CAA play. The Dukes lost to Elon, 27-24, on Oct. 6, which broke a string of 20 consecutive regular season CAA wins, and were upset by New Hampshire, 35-24, on Nov. 3.
With a convincing win against Towson, who also made the playoffs, and victories against Stony Brook and Rhode Island also on their resume, James Madison felt they were deserving of a top-eight seed, which comes along with a first-round bye.
The Dukes came in sixth on the final STATS FCS Top 25 poll of the season, but that ranking, which is voted on by media members and media relations officials from across the country, doesn’t figure into the bracket compiled by the FCS playoff committee, a separate entity of 10 athletic directors from the FCS conferences.
Outright CAA Champion Maine took the seventh seed and Colgate, a 9-1 team from the Patriot League, was awarded the eighth seed.
“One thing I know about this team is we play best when we’re pissed off,” James Madison running back Trai Sharp told The Breeze, JMU’s student newspaper. “We change our mindset, we get clicking on the field. So, it is what it is. I am surprised about it, but we have to play football on Saturday.”
Delaware has the toughest opening matchup of any CAA team
In turn, Delaware gets the most difficult first round matchup of any CAA team. Once James Madison was left out of the top eight seeds, the pairing became inevitable.
The playoff committee told the Associated Press in 2017 that it’s obligated to pair schools who are within 400 miles of one another, if at all possible. While there is also a rule that prohibits conference opponents from playing one another in the first round, an exception is made for schools that did not play in the regular season. Delaware and James Madison fit both criteria.
Towson hosts Duquesne (unranked in the STATS FCS Top 25), a likely opponent of the Blue Hens had James Madison been seeded and received a first-round bye. Elon travels to Wofford (No. 13) and Stony Brook travels to Southeast Missouri State (No. 20). Delaware saves on mileage, but has the least winnable matchup.
Had JMU gotten their druthers, Delaware might have been playing at Delaware Stadium this weekend in a winnable game. But of course Villanova was a winnable game, at home, and it’s clear how well that unfolded.
Containing James Madison’s rushing attack
So how does Delaware get back on track? An improved run defense could go a long way.
As much as Delaware predicates its offense around establishing the run, the defense is built around limiting it. Recently, they’ve been doing anything but.
In the last four games, opponents are averaging 191.5 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry against the Blue Hens.
The task gets no easier against James Madison, who perennially has one of the conference’s best ground units, a season after leading the conference in every major rushing category. The Dukes rank third in the CAA with 190.0 rushing yards per game and average a league-best 4.9 yards per attempt.
Despite that, James Madison hadn’t had a 100-yard rusher until last Saturday’s game against Towson, when Cardon Johnson, Trai Sharp and quarterback Ben DiNucci all eclipsed the century mark.
Johnson is JMU’s leading rusher, a year after an achilles injury ended his senior season three games in. The NCAA granted him a sixth year with a “medical hardship waiver” — the same exception made for Delaware linebacker Charles Bell.
Sharp has played in all 11 games, but has not started. He tallied a career-high 185 yards on 36 carries against Delaware last season (a game in which the Blue Hens allowed 254 rushing yards overall).
James Madison also has Marcus Marshall, a preseason All-American, who led JMU in rushing with 850 yards and scored a CAA-best 11 rushing touchdowns last season. Marshall, a Georgia Tech transfer, has been limited to eight games this season due to injury.
Nine All-Conference Selections
Delaware had nine players named to the All-CAA teams Tuesday. Five made the first team — linebacker Troy Reeder, safety Nasir Adderley, tight end Charles Scarff, offensive lineman Mario Farinella and punter Nick Pritchard — and four made the third team — Walker, Jones, Kitchen and offensive lineman Noah Beh.
“I think Delaware is as talented as any team in the country,” redshirt sophomore running back Dejoun Lee said on Monday.
The question is, and long has been, can the Blue Hens put together a complete performance? Can the sum be better than its parts?
“We want to put our best product out there every week and we haven’t done that to this point,” senior safety Malcolm Brown said of the defense. “Whether it’ll be a couple of plays that can easily determine a game or a couple plays that can take away from what you would think would be the complete defensive game, we haven’t been able to do it for whatever reason. We’re just fortunate to have another chance to do that this Saturday.”
“We’ve gotta rise up and play at that level,” Rocco said.
The All-CAA selections also serve as a wary reminder of how much talent is graduating after this season. All nine of Delaware’s selections are seniors. The Blue Hens will lose 28 players, 20 of whom have started a game this season.
If not now then when?
“We’ve now felt what it felt like to have your season end essentially,” Reeder said asked about how it felt to step off the field Saturday for perhaps the last time. “Now we’ve been given life and a second chance. We don’t want to feel that feeling back-to-back weeks.”
No more looking ahead
Along those lines, Rocco, Brown, Reeder and Lee all referenced in one way or another the finality this game brings Delaware. In many other years, a 7-4, 5-3 record wouldn’t have been good enough to make the tournament, which added four teams in 2013.
There won’t be any extra chances if Delaware drops its third straight contest Saturday.
“This is our season,” Brown said. “This week right here is our season.”
Meanwhile, James Madison may have one eye down the road.
Houston, JMU’s head coach, said Monday that Delaware is “as good as anything we’ll see for a couple rounds.”
It’s only one statement, but it reinforces the expectation of a James Madison victory and easily handled one at that. It’d be hard to blame James Madison for projecting out its opponents moving forward, as it looks to make a push to its third straight national championship game, but it also means the pressure is moreso on the hosting Dukes to handle business rather than Delaware to take a win that no one expects them to.
“I don’t think that our team has played in a game since I’ve been here where there hasn’t been a lot of pressure on my team, on our team,” Rocco said Monday. “I think every single game we’ve felt a lot of pressure… and to be quite honest with you, we don’t have any pressure on us here, this week. Go out, put all the chips on the table and go out there and play the best we can possible play, prepare the best we can possibly play, knowing we’re going to be highly motivated.”
That said, Rocco’s team isn’t completely out-of-dodge.
Sure there is more pressure on JMU, but there is some level of competitiveness that Delaware must play up to in this game, even in a losing effort, to appease its success-ravaged fanbase. Another blowout loss against a rival CAA team would make this season, and the postseason appearance, feel like only a small step in the right direction.
Delaware leads the all-time series against James Madison 14-11. The Blue Hens last won 30-23 in 2014… Delaware defensive line coach Levern Belin’s brother, Warren Belin, is the linebackers coach at James Madison. JMU assistant Fontel Mines coached under Rocco at Richmond and accepted a position at Delaware in 2016 before opting for his current role at James Madison.
Adderley is the first Blue Hen to start every game of his four-year career since Rob McDowell in 2008-2011. He is the only FCS player to have back-to-back seasons with 75 or more tackles and four or more interceptions. Tuesday he accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl… Troy Reeder is the only player in FCS football with 115 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss. Eight more tackles would put him inside the top-10 in program history.
Kehoe ranks tenth in FCS football in passing yards per completion (14.6). In the three games since his career-best 305-yard passing performance against Towson, Kehoe averaged 10.9 yards per completion. In that three-game span, Delaware completed just two passes for more than 20 yards, a 42-yard completion from Kehoe to Walker against Albany and a 43-yard touchdown pass from Henderson to Walker against Villanova.
Lee’s 7.0 yard-per-carry average against Villanova was the second-highest single-game mark by a Blue Hens rusher with at least 10 carries, behind only Lee’s 11-rush 93-yard performance against Lafayette (8.5). He had a career-high 98 yards and scored his first two touchdowns against Villanova. On Monday, Lee said that James Madison was one of his favorite schools coming out of Lake Braddock High School in Springfield, VA., but that the coaching staff told him he was “too small.”