Thursday, January 26, 2023

Commentary: Explosive but inconsistent offense gives Hens playoff hopes, but not before crucial test at Villanova

SportsFootballCommentary: Explosive but inconsistent offense gives Hens playoff hopes, but not before crucial test at Villanova

BY KONNER METZ
Managing Sports Editor




The Ryan Carty-led Blue Hens have had a few chances to cement themselves at the top of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) standings and even atop the national polls.

But those fleeting moments have not gone Delaware’s way – at least not yet. This past Saturday was yet another instance of the Hens falling short with a less-than-advertised offensive output.

In a home finale versus conference foe Richmond (8-2, 6-1 CAA), the Hens were down 9-0 after three quarters. They stormed back to take a 13-12 lead off of two consecutive touchdown drives, led by a battered but effective Nolan Henderson.

However, the victory slipped away after the offense failed to convert a fourth-down in the red zone, giving the Spiders the ball with under two minutes remaining. Richmond quarterback Reece Udinski completed a 45-yard fourth-down pass on a blown coverage to set up kicker Jake Larson for his third and decisive field goal of the contest.

Two Henderson interceptions, a sack fumble and three turnovers on downs stalled Delaware (7-3, 4-3 CAA) to just 13 points. A scoreless first half put the Hens in a precarious spot to start the second half, reminiscent of the team’s first loss of the season at William & Mary (9-1, 6-1 CAA).

In that early October matchup, the Hens punted on the first four drives before finally cracking the end zone. But after being down 24-7 in the third quarter, a hefty comeback was too much to mount, particularly with a muffed punt mixed into the rally attempt that ended in a 27-24 result.

At Elon (8-3, 6-2 CAA) in late October, Henderson played despite being a game-time decision with a shoulder injury, but the offense sputtered regardless of his availability in the 27-7 loss.

It was Delaware’s second loss, only gaining 265 total yards, including a dismal 19 rushing yards on 16 attempts. Just like last Saturday, the Hens struck out three times on fourth-down conversion attempts versus the Phoenix.

Jacob Letnaunchyn/THE REVIEW
Delaware’s playoff hopes may rest on the right arm of quarterback Nolan Henderson, who will lead the Blue Hens into battle this Saturday versus Villanova.

Delaware ranks first in the CAA with 30 fourth-down tries, but have only converted on 12 of those for a 40% success rate, ranking 10th in the CAA.

Many of Carty’s fourth-down decisions have drawn questions and doubts from fans and media alike, including when he opted to run a fourth-down play from the Richmond 7-yard line instead of attempting a chip shot field goal.

But to Carty’s defense, the field goal unit has easily been the least reliable part of the 2022 Blue Hens. Brandon Ratcliffe missed his only two field goal attempts earlier this season, and lately, any rare field goal tries have gone to Andrew MacMillan and Garrett Bennion (both 1-for-3). Bennion missed badly on a 40-yard attempt in the third quarter against Richmond.

No matter the reasoning, the Blue Hens have been subpar in the fourth-down department, whether the blame be play calling or execution. Most wins, though, have featured an explosive Hens offense – one that Carty and the staff cannot seem to replicate week in, week out.

Delaware spotted 42 points and 610 yards on conference opponent Rhode Island in September, a week before beating Hampton 35-3 at home.

Just over a week ago, Henderson accrued a career-high six total touchdowns en route to a 49-17 whooping of CAA newcomer Monmouth.

Despite severe offensive shortcomings in their three losses, Delaware is still fifth in the conference in yards per game (407.5). 14 of the Hens’ 38 offensive touchdowns have been 20-plus-yard plays, as much of the offense has come from long Henderson passes or breakaway runs by the backfield.

While the offense has received much of the attention due to Carty’s background as an offensive guru, defensive coordinator Manny Rojas and the defense are first in the CAA in points allowed (14.9) and yards allowed (280.9).

Last Saturday, the defense kept Richmond out of the end zone, forcing five field goal attempts, three punts and two fumbles. But with a shaky special teams and inconsistent offense, nothing is guaranteed for one of the nation’s best defensive units.

Heading into the final regular season weekend, Delaware is arguably in a must-win situation on the road. Villanova (5-5, 3-4 CAA) awaits, out of playoff contention, but likely eager to end the Blue Hens’ season in the rivalry coined “Battle of the Blue.”

An eighth total win and fifth CAA victory would likely put Delaware in the 24-team playoff bracket, especially with a Football Bowl Subdivision victory over Navy in week one polishing the resume. 

But Carty and his squad will have to travel to Villanova Stadium to do so, and if the offense sputters for a fourth time this season, it may just be the end of a promising campaign for the Blue Hens.

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