A familiar opponent stands in Delaware’s playoff path
Often the first round of the FCS playoffs pairs two unevenly matched teams that don’t know each other very well.
When Delaware defeated Lehigh, 42-20, in the first game of its 2010 run to the national championship, it was the 46th meeting between the two schools, but only the third matchup this century.
2007’s opening round game, in the then I-AA playoffs, pitted Delaware against Delaware State for the first time ever. It was a 44-7 Joe Flacco-led drubbing.
Back up to 2004 and it was Southern Illinois that fell to the Hens in the first round, 48-7.
In these types of games, coaches have to stoke a proverbial fire in their players to guard against a perceived letdown, despite the air of the playoffs. For Saturday’s first round matchup against CAA foe James Madison, Delaware won’t need any reminders.
“In those moments, the coach and the staff are thinking about motivating their players,” Delaware Head Coach Danny Rocco said Monday at his weekly press conference. “… In a situation like this, the situation is there. It’s inherent to the opponent. So that’s one thing that we know, our players will be highly motivated.”
Delaware closed the regular season on a two-game losing streak, following their loss at Stony Brook with a 42-21 blowout defeat against Villanova. The Wildcats outgained the Blue Hens 459-344, converted almost half of their third down opportunities (5-11) and sacked Delaware five times.
The loss dropped the Blue Hens to 7-4, 5-3 for the second consecutive season. Unlike in 2017, Delaware’s season-long resume was good enough to get the Blue Hens into the 24-team FCS playoffs. They’ll make their first playoff appearance since 2010 Saturday at 3 p.m. at Bridgeforth Stadium in Harrisonburg, VA.
Delaware hasn’t beaten James Madison since 2014, a 30-23 victory in Harrisonburg. The Dukes defeated the Blue Hens, 20-10, in Newark last season. The 20 points scored by JMU tied the team’s lowest output of the season a year ago until the Dukes’ 17-13 loss to North Dakota State in the national championship.
The teams did not play in the regular season this year.
James Madison won three consecutive CAA championships from 2015-2017 and has appeared in each of the last two national championship games, winning it all in 2016. The Dukes have repeatedly been revered by coaches across the CAA, including Rocco, for sustaining success in the FCS’ most challenging conference.
James Madison, at 8-3 overall and 6-2 in conference play, may have taken a step back this season, but was still ranked as the best CAA team in the last STATS FCS Top 25 poll of the season, coming in at No. 6. James Madison closed its regular season with a 38-17 win at Towson.
“We’re playing as well as we have all year right now,” James Madison Head Coach Mike Houston said Monday on the CAA’s weekly teleconference. “To be playing that way going into in the playoffs, that’s where you want to be.”
The Dukes present multiple obvious challenges for the Blue Hens, who enter the playoffs on their worst three-game stretch of the season and decimated by injuries.
Quarterback Pat Kehoe’s status is in question after the redshirt junior left Saturday’s game with concussion symptoms and did not return. Rocco said Monday he was “optimistic” about Kehoe’s chances of playing, but wouldn’t know until later in the week. Redshirt freshman Nolan Henderson and redshirt senior J.P. Caruso saw time against Villanova in his place, but neither practiced Tuesday according to the News Journal’s Kevin Tresolini. Boston College transfer and former Middletown Cavalier Darius Wade has been sidelined with a shoulder injury for much of the second half of the season.
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
Henderson left the game briefly in the first half but returned for the second drive of the second half and played the rest of the way. Henderson, who was sacked four times and hit a lot, was noticeably limping by the end of the game. How or when Caruso’s injury occurred is unknown.
Whoever is behind center, whether it be quarterback-turned-wide receiver Joe Walker or freshman Anthony Paoletti, who both took reps there Tuesday, or Kehoe, Henderson or Caruso, will have to deal with the CAA’s top scoring defense. The Dukes have allowed only 14.6 points per game and 190.9 passing yards per game (fifth in the CAA). The unit is led by cornerback Jimmy Moreland, who was named the CAA’s top defender Tuesday. Moreland has five interceptions, nine pass break-ups and 40 tackles on the season. He had eight interceptions in 2017.
James Madison’s offense, which is second in scoring at 36.5 points per game only behind Towson, boasts one of the CAA’s top ground unit.
Against Towson last week, James Madison had three players go over 100 yards rushing, running backs Cardon Johnson and Trai Sharp and quarterback Ben DiNucci. On the season the team averages 190.0 yards on the ground (third-best in the CAA).
“I think we’ll have to stop the run first,” senior safety Malcolm Brown said. “That’s what they want to do. They just want to line up and run the ball at you and dare you to stop it.
“They have two guys right now that run the ball really well. They have a physical o-line and a quarterback that can extend some plays when he needs to.”
Delaware has struggled defensively in its last four games, and particularly against the run. Opponents over that stretch are averaging 191.5 rushing yards per game on a healthy 4.6 yards per carry against the Blue Hens, while Delaware has allowed 27.8 points on average.
In back-to-back weeks Stony Brook’s Donald Liotine and Villanova’s Aaron Forbes gained 170 yards and 138 yards against the Hens. Delaware could also be without All-CAA defensive lineman Cam Kitchen, who left the Villanova game with a knee injury and did not return.
The Blue Hens, ranked sixth in scoring defense (26.1) and seventh in total defense (354.8) in the CAA, have failed to perform like the nationally touted defense it claimed it had the potential to become at the beginning of the season. Saturday’s game represents a final chance for the defense to deliver to or beyond its lofty level of expectation.
“We want to put our best product out there every week and we haven’t done that to this point,” Brown said. “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.
“This is our season. This week right here is our season. There is no more looking forward to the next game.”