Hens recall past heartbreak as William & Mary comes to town

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Brandon Holveck/THE REVIEW
Head Coach Danny Rocco announced that J.P. Caruso will start this Saturday against William & Mary.

BY
ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

Last year in Williamsburg, Delaware led the William & Mary Tribe 14-3 entering the fourth quarter.

With a win, the Blue Hens would have returned to Newark at 3-3, with a chance to capitalize on a two-game home stand. A loss would have continued Delaware’s three-game losing streak, and plummeted the team to 2-4 for the second consecutive season.

In the ensuing 15 minutes, the Tribe scored a touchdown, recovered an onside kick and scored another touchdown to take an improbable 17-14 lead. In the midst of Delaware’s comeback attempt, Aaron Swinton intercepted a Joe Walker pass and returned the ball 63 yards to the end zone, to put the game away for good.

The day after the loss, Athletic Director Chrissi Rawak fired then Head Coach Dave Brock. The Hens sputtered through the finish line, with a record of 4-7 for the second consecutive season.

As the Blue Hens prepare to face off against the Tribe this Saturday, a 3-2 record and a wave of momentum from their 24-20 comeback win against Stony Brook, has given Delaware’s season a much different tone than that of a year ago.

“I think that whole event and the way things transpired made a lot of guys really mature faster than they would have without those circumstances,” junior linebacker Troy Reeder said. “I saw a lot of guys step into new leadership roles … I think we had some high points the rest of that season, like Albany, where we kind of saw what we could be. I think that kind of a game … was what brought us through this offseason.”

Monday, for the second time in his career, Reeder was awarded CAA defensive player of the week honors for his 12-tackle performance at Stony Brook. The first time he received the honors: Delaware’s 33-17 victory at Albany in 2016.

In tandem with the defense’s second-half turnaround, Rocco said Monday that quarterback J.P. Caruso, who completed 7 of 14 passes for 80 yards, “made enough plays to give us the opportunity to win.” Against Stony Brook, the plan was to play Walker for the first two series and Caruso for the next two, then “go from there”.

This week, Rocco said that Caruso will be the team’s starting quarterback but that he’ll likely find ways to utilize Walker’s athleticism.

“There was obviously some uncertainty in my mind three weeks ago, four weeks ago, two weeks ago whether [Caruso] was really ready to go out there and manage the offense and manage the game,” Rocco said. “His performance Saturday night was statistically relatively pedestrian, particularly throwing the ball, but he was a spark and he did bring an element of confidence and excitement into the game.”

To open CAA play, William & Mary suffered back-to-back losses to ranked opponents, Stony Brook and Elon. However, the Tribe have won three of their last four meetings with Delaware.

“As we’ve seen the last couple of weeks, anybody can beat anybody,” Reeder said. “There is not a huge difference between the top of the conference and the bottom … William and Mary, they’re a good team and we lost to them last year, so obviously, there’s part of us that really sees this as a game of payback. ”

Like Delaware, William & Mary has a quarterback conundrum. In last week’s game against Elon, Tribe Head Coach Jimmye Laycock replaced starting QB Tommy McKee with backup Brandon Battle. In his first significant game action, Battle completed 11 of 21 passes for 155 yards to help William & Mary outscore Elon 14-2 in the second half. Laycock has yet to name a starter for this week.

With a question mark at quarterback following the graduation of three-year starter Steve Cluley, a fifth-ranked scoring defense has kept the Tribe in games.

“Over the years, [William & Mary] have schemed us about as well as anybody has schemed us,” Rocco said. “They’ve done things with their personnel and with their formations that make you think or believe that they know exactly what you’re coaching your kids to do … That is the essence of coaching, to understand what that other team is being told on film … They have allowed and forced us to have to continue to evolve our defense because every year after we play them, they do something different that we haven’t seen anybody else do to this defense.”

Rocco said the offense must also improve its efficiency, citing “horrible” offensive line play. Perhaps the greatest difference between now and a year ago, is that Delaware is learning how to finish games, according to Rocco and Reeder, despite the inefficiencies.

“I think when things really got tight up there Saturday night in the fourth quarter, I think maybe for the first time around here, we started recognizing ‘this team thinks they’re going to win’ and that’s a huge part of being successful,” Rocco said.

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