By the numbers: 10 statistics that defined Rocco’s second season and could define his third

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Justis Henley could be one of Delaware’s impact defensive players in 2019./span>

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Executive Editor

On the rain-soaked turf of Bridgeforth Stadium, trailing by 14 with only minutes remaining, Delaware quarterback Pat Kehoe dropped back for the final time.

The left hander rolled unnaturally to his right, and threw up a so-called 50-50 ball to Vinny Papale. Only, by the time it left Kehoe’s hand, it was hardly a coin flip. James Madison safety Wayne Davis read it all the way, made the easy interception along the Delaware sideline and finished off the Blue Hens season.

By the time Delaware made it to Harrisonburg for the FCS playoffs, the team’s first appearance since 2010, they had already waded through the highs and lows of a college football season.

After riding a mid-season five-game winning streak back into national relevance, the Blue Hens failed to pick up a first down on its first six possessions of that matchup with JMU. With Kehoe hobbled, running back Kani Kane noticeably absent and facing the fourth-best FCS team according to Sagarin ratings, the renaissance season ended on a whimper.

It’s sounds like a stretch to say the preparation process for 2019 began as Davis hauled in Kehoe’s throw, but the reality for those in the college football world, is that the offseason never truly starts and ends. College football in 2019 is a 365-day enterprise.

“We’re constantly pushing the model forward,” Delaware Head Coach Danny Rocco said the week after the JMU loss. “We’re constantly evaluating what we have done well and not well.”

With Delaware set to open spring practice on March 12, let’s take a final look back at the second year of the Danny Rocco era as we prepare for what to expect this season.

1. To Begin: 136th in Sagarin Rating

Here’s what we’re working with. Delaware finished 7-4 in the regular season for the second consecutive year before its playoff loss to James Madison in the first round. The playoff appearance broke the longest postseason drought in program history, but a season-ending three-game losing streak siphoned the thrill for Blue Hens fans.

Rocco was equally displeased.

“It’s concerning for me as the coach,” Rocco said. “You never want to end in that fashion. But in the same context, I think it does offer us motivation moving forward here into the offseason.”

Delaware will start the 2019 season with a few new faces on the sidelines, including first-year offensive coordinator Jared Ambrose, who spent the past 10 seasons with Towson. But don’t expect revolutionary differences in Delaware’s offensive style. It’ll still be Rocco holding the reigns.

Defensively, Rocco alluded to a potential “transformation” in his final press conference of the season, one that could feature more formations with four down lineman as the line projects as the strength of the Blue Hen defense.

Overall, Delaware’s first two seasons under Rocco look remarkably similar on paper. In the Sagarin rating, which grades each college football team, FBS and FCS, on factors like strength of schedule and point differential, Delaware finished 136th out of 225 teams. The Blue Hens, who ranked 24th in the FCS, finished fourth in the CAA behind James Madison (78th overall, 4th FCS), Stony Brook (125th overall, 18th FCS) and Maine (129th overall, 20th FCS)

In 2017, Delaware finished in the same spots in the FCS and CAA and ranked just one place worse overall (137th).

Team Place in Sagarin Rating
North Dakota State 19
South Dakota State 58
Eastern Washington 70
James Madison 78
Stony Brook 125
Maine 129
Delaware 136
Towson 143
Elon 146
New Hampshire 148
Villanova 151

The Sagarin rating is one of many measures taken into consideration by the playoff selection committee. Why Delaware made it into the playoffs in 2018, but not 2017, had more to do with the other teams (the FCS middle class was unusually thin) than with Delaware itself. To ensure back-to-back postseason trips the Blue Hens will need to get better.

In 2018 Delaware was neither lucky or unlucky. Its +2.9 scoring margin equates to a 7-5 pythagorean record. It’s below-average offense (seventh in the CAA at 24.4 points per game) was buoyed by its above-average defense (third in the CAA at 21.5 points allowed per game).

“It’s concerning for me as the coach. You never want to end in that fashion.”

2. Offensive Collapse: 12.8 points per game

The Blue Hens were on pace for a breakout year through much of the fall. They bounced back from a 38-10 loss to North Dakota State with a string of five straight wins against conference opponents through October and into early November.

But then came a late-season collapse in which Delaware lost its final three games — at Stony Brook, versus Villanova and at James Madison — by an average margin of 16.3 points. An offense that scored 30.3 points per game in its first eight contests, averaged only 12.8 points in its final four (the three-game losing streak plus the dangerously close 21-16 win at last-place UAlbany).

There are many factors that played into the offense’s regression that we’ll explore, but ultimately it’s impossible to pinpoint a single correctable mistake that led to Delaware’s late-season downfall. Instead it’s a combination of the following factors and many others that don’t show statistically.

3. Where did the passing attack go?: 9.2 yards per completion

Comp.-Att. Comp. % Pass yds/game TD INT Yds/Att. Yds/Comp.
First eight games 110-207 53.1% 224.8 17 6 8.7 16.4
Final four games 55-126 43.7% 150.0 1 5 4.8 9.2

What stands out most when considering the numbers above is the near 10 percent dip in completion percentage, but the drop in yards per completion is also very important to note.

When Delaware was humming offensively the passing attack took and made downfield shots, averaging the highest yards per completion in the league, at the expense of shorter higher percentage throws.

Delaware tallied 18 explosive passing plays (defined here as receptions that gain more than 25 yards) in its first eight games, including five in its 43-point outburst against Richmond and four against Towson. In their final four games, the Blue Hens recorded only four explosive plays through the air.

Game flow and opponent play a large role in dictating an offense’s game plan, and in particular how many downfield throws they’re willing to try. There are reasons that Delaware would take less downfield shots (we’ll dive into some later), but even so, there was an illustrative drop in level of execution.

Joe Walker, Delaware’s top deep threat, actually received the highest share of Delaware’s targets in the Blue Hens’ final four games, 26.7 percent, but was held to less than 50 receiving yards in three of those contests.

It’s likely that opponents sent extra attention Walker’s way late in the season, preventing him from sustaining his “take-the-top-off-the-defense” style.

James Madison, in particular, bracketed Walker early and often and awarded his early-season production with a steady dose of CAA Defensive Player of the Year Jimmy Moreland. Walker finished with two catches for minus-one yard.

It wasn’t a fluke. His yards per reception dropped from 22.9 in Delaware’s first eight games to 15.3 in its final four.

Vinny Papale, a favorite target of Kehoe’s, caught only 32.1 percent of his targets in Delaware’s last four games (he reeled in over half his targets prior to the UAlbany game).

Together, Walker and Papale accounted for 19 of Delaware’s 24 explosive passing plays in 2018. But their impact wasn’t felt when Delaware needed them most.

Now Delaware is tasked with replacing both of them and All-CAA tight end Charles Scarff.

4. Caught Short-Handed: 74.1 percent of the offense’s production

After missing the majority of Delaware’s game against Villanova due to concussion symptoms, Kehoe missed only one practice the following week. Of more consequence to his play down the stretch, however, was the fact he played with a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the end of the season. By the James Madison game, his right leg needed a bulky wrap.

Kane, the team’s leading rusher, was limited against Stony Brook, played only a handful of snaps against Villanova and never saw the field in Harrisonburg. The duo combined to account for 74.1 percent of the team’s total yardage — a crass calculation, but one that demonstrates how integral both players were to Delaware’s scheme.

Deep routes, those that produce the type of explosive plays detailed above, take time to develop. The quarterback must have a clean pocket or be able to extend the play by moving around the pocket to allow his receivers enough time to uncover down the field.

Due to the injury, Kehoe’s ability to fill those requirements diminished. At the end of the season, Rocco was asked about how the injury affected his quarterback.

“Late in the year, when people rushed our passer they had no concern about pass rush lanes because they felt the quarterback was not going to escape. So you watch JMU, they just pinned their ears back and they just tried to push the pocket back,” Rocco answered. “It didn’t really matter if they were in the right lane or not. They felt we were not going to escape. And when you get to that point, it’s impossible to really establish pass protection without lane integrity.

“Sometimes defensively we’re looked at and criticized for not having lane integrity and bam, there goes the quarterback running back door or slipping up inside. So I think to your question, he was healthy enough to drop back and throw without a doubt but he no longer was a ball carrier threat, which he certainly is when he’s healthy and more importantly he was really no longer a guy that could evade the rush and extend the play. When defenses see that, it’s kind of sharks to blood.”

Not only did Delaware suffer the opportunity costs of not getting the ball down field, the Blue Hens also took more negative plays.

In the first eight games of the season, Delaware quarterbacks were sacked 13 times (1.6 per game). In the final four games, Delaware quarterbacks were sacked 15 times (3.8 per game). James Madison alone sacked Kehoe five times.

Should Delaware have considered other options given Kehoe’s limitations? Maybe, but their options weren’t exactly plentiful.

Nolan Henderson injured his ankle against Villanova significantly enough that the coaching staff thought he might’ve needed surgery (he ultimately did not, and Delaware expects a full recovery). J.P. Caruso’s shoulder was in a sling by the week of the James Madison game, and he didn’t even make the trip to Harrisonburg. And Boston College transfer Darius Wade announced on Instagram (welcome to 2019) in January that he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in August.

True freshman Anthony Paoletti? Quarterback-turned wide receiver-turned quarterback Joe Walker? If he could throw the ball, I would’ve gone with Kehoe too.

All the while, Delaware faced the dual challenge of also being without Kane.

“Without Kani [Kane], we didn’t have that weapon to kind of offset it,” Rocco said. “You hand the ball to Kani on a play that’s blocked modestly, you know, he’ll get four instead of two. We kind of lost that formula down the back stretch and we needed to be able to find other ways to manage it and to construct offense, positively, but we were handcuffed a little bit to be quite frank.”

Now should Delaware have adjusted its game plan knowing its limitations in personnel? I think that’s fair — as Delaware, on offense, took five-step drops, JMU hit the Blue Hens with quick strike after quick strike — but the injuries are certainly a factor in the late-season woes.

How would the season ended if everyone was at full strength? Who knows. But when is anyone ever at full strength in this game?

5. Strength of Schedule: Average Sagarin rating finish of 138

A simpler explanation for Delaware’s late-season struggles lies in their schedule.

Delaware’s first eight opponents, a mixed bag of teams such as the 3-8 Lafayette Leopards and the national champion North Dakota State Bison, finished 156 in Sagarin rating on average.

UAlbany, Stony Brook, Villanova and James Madison averaged a Sagarin rating good enough for 138th place.

One caveat: if you compare just Delaware’s first five CAA opponents and its final four, the average conference records are remarkably similar. The early-season helping combined for a 18-21 record (3.6-4.2), while the final four finished 14-18 (3.5-4.5).

But it’s hard to argue the final stretch wasn’t significantly more challenging. Delaware faced two playoff teams on the road in Stony Brook and James Madison and had to deal with rival Villanova — that seemingly always plays over its head against the Blue Hens.

6. Demise of the Running Game: 3.0 yards per carry

After finishing second in the CAA in each of the last three seasons, Delaware’s running attack took a tumble in 2019, with and without Kani Kane, who they now have to replace.

Year CAA Rank Attempts Yards Yds/game Yds/carry TD TD/game
2015 2 533 2413 219.4 4.5 15 1.4
2016 2 278 2499 227.2 5.2 23 2.1
2017 2 494 2094 190.4 4.2 14 1.3
2018 11 421 1264 1264 3.0 15 1.3

The Blue Hens reached those numbers with various combinations of Jalen Randolph, Wes Hills, Thomas Jefferson, Kareem Williams and Kane. Now they’ll be depending on DeJoun Lee, Penn State transfer Andre Robinson and Khory Spruill.

Lee showed flashes of brilliance, turning in a 98-yard performance on 11 carries (all in the first half) against Lafayette and scoring from 38 yards out against Villanova. He ended as Delaware’s leading rusher with 606 yards on 124 carries (4.9 yards per carry) across all 12 games. Robinson, who received more playing time as the season unfolded but often in passing situations, remains an unknown.

Lee and Robinson combined for 56 yards on 18 carries against James Madison.

Along the offensive line, Delaware graduated multiple-year starters in center Brody Kern and left tackle Jake Trump ahead of the 2018 season, but still saw center/guard Mario Farinella and guard/tackle Noah Beh recognized as All-CAA players. Now Beh will move on, with Farinella, tackle David Kroll and guards Connor Lutz and Chuka Ezeuzoh representing Delaware’s returning contributors.

Lee has as much promise as anyone returning to Delaware’s offense but, at 5’7’’ and 175 lbs, he is far from an every down between the tackles thumper. Reinventing the running game, around Lee’s unique abilities, must be an offseason priority for Rocco and Ambrose, who utilized Shane Simpson, a similarly diminutive back, to great success at Towson.

7. First Down Play-Calling: 62 percent runs, 38 percent passes

Most football fans are familiar with the adages “establish the run” and “staying ahead of the sticks.” But in a game with shifting rules that continue to lend more to playing in space and taking chances down field, is it as important as we often think to accomplish these cliche tasks?

While almost all of the research on the merits of passing on first down has been conducted on the NFL (the sheer volume of data and differences between conference makes similar college football research extremely difficult), its basic lessons can be applied across levels.

This passage from Brian Burke’s 2012 piece in the Washington Post is often cited and encompasses the arguments beautifully.

“Offenses are better off thinking of their three downs (and fourth when the situation requires) as isolated opportunities for ten-yard conversions rather than stepping stones toward what coaches call a “manageable third down.” The best third down situation isn’t third and 1 or even third and inches. It’s converting on first or second down, before ever reaching third down. Rather than seeking a short third down situation, offenses should be avoiding third downs whenever possible.”

It could be football’s version of basketball’s three-point revolution. Similar research from the likes of Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight supports Burke’s thesis.

At Delaware’s level, the urgency to abandon the first-down run probably isn’t as great as those articles may make it seem — FCS defenses are far less disciplined in filling gaps and have far worse open-field tacklers than NFL defenses — if you can run for five or six yards on average, you’ll be alright pounding away. But could Delaware have shedded a few first-down runs for downfield passes?

In CAA play (including the playoff game against James Madison), Delaware ran the ball 62 percent of the time on first down, according to my own charting. (My numbers do not differentiate between play call and result, hence if Delaware called a pass but the quarterback decided to run the ball it counts as a running play. Penalties, quarterback kneel downs and spikes are also excluded).

On 141 first-down runs, Delaware gained 698 yards (5.0 yards per carry). Delaware completed 47-83 (57 percent) first-down passes for 682 yards, an average of 8.3 yards per attempt.

I think early in games, Delaware could benefit from scheming a few more medium to down field throws on first down, with the idea of preserving the option to run or pass on second down in mind.

Of Delaware’s 24 explosive passing plays this season, eight (33.3 percent) came on first down. 15 of their explosive passing plays came in wins, and seven in losses.

Delaware’s current split is likely fine, especially if the running attack can return close to pre-2018 levels, but this an evolving element of the game that is worth keeping an eye on.

8. Emptying Delaware’s defense: 63.6 percent of the splash plays are washing away

Put optimistically, Delaware returns two regular starters from its defense: linebacker Colby Reeder and defensive lineman Caleb Ashworth.

Sometimes “seniors returning” or “starters lost” designations can be misleading — if they’re not very good who cares one way or the other? This isn’t one of those situations.

If we count tackles for loss, sacks, pass break ups, interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and QB hits as “splash plays,” Delaware totaled 150 such plays in 2018. Players that contributed 95.5 of those plays, or 63.6 percent, graduated from the team, including cornerstones Troy Reeder (21.5), Nasir Adderley (14.5) and Ray Jones (18.5). Of course, not all of these plays carry the same impact, but the sheer number of long-time playmakers exiting is significant. In more simple terms, 70.2 percent of the team’s tackles came from seniors.

“I would say it’s definitely the biggest group of seniors that we’ve ever had,” Rocco said. “I do think that that’s accurate and real. I think that the new freshman redshirt rule helped us a little bit this year. We had a couple guys get to play in some games that will be viable options for us next year. I feel good about our roster.”

Here’s a look at a few players who could take a step up in 2019, including linebackers Drew Nickles and Kedrick Whitehead and cornerback Justis Henley.

9. What’s up with that?: 378.2 yards allowed per game in CAA play

I tried to find an explanation for how Delaware allowed 378.2 yards per game in CAA play (10th in the conference) and yet finished fourth in CAA scoring defense at 23.8 points allowed per game. My efforts were largely unsuccessful, but here’s some of the more interesting notes that turned up.

Turnovers certainly account for part of the equation — the Blue Hens tied for second in the CAA with 17 takeaways in conference play.

They ranked seventh in the CAA in conversion rate against in the red zone in CAA play at 79.3 percent (23-29). I thought perhaps they were good at holding teams to field goals (bend but don’t break anyone?). But that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Delaware ranked fifth in touchdown rate against in CAA play at 51.7 percent. Their touchdown to field goal ratio in the red zone in CAA play was fourth-best at 1.88.

Those numbers were up from 2017, when Delaware allowed touchdowns on 61.9 percent of red zone situations in CAA play and had a touchdown to field goal ratio of 4.3.

Success in the red zone, both offensively and defensively, is difficult to sustain year-to-year, but is a calling card of many top teams. Three of the four best teams in touchdown rate against made the playoffs, and two of the three teams better than Delaware in terms of touchdown to field goal ratio made the playoffs.

Delaware also wasn’t particularly elite on third down, finishing tied for seventh in the conference with an opponent’s third-down conversion percentage of 36.2 in league play.

10. A New Beginning: One

It’s day one all over again. As much as we love trying to project what this team will look like when Delaware Stadium reopens, who knows who will be leading the team in August, much less November. (Who would have predicted that Kehoe, who at this point last year had not thrown a collegiate pass, would be the main subject of this 3,500-word piece?)

With Ambrose in tow, it will be interesting to follow what kind of offensive wrinkles he can implement from Towson’s CAA-leading attack at Delaware. The defense, rife with new faces, is the great unknown.

“I think the energy, the support, the enthusiasm for the future of our program, I think is on point with where it needs to be,” Rocco said.

Here’s to another year of Delaware football.

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