Playoff football returns to Delaware Stadium on Saturday, and the Blue Hens are relishing the opportunity.
It comes after distressing defeats against Richmond and Villanova the last two weeks appeared to thwart Delaware’s postseason chances.
Instead, a season’s worth of work earned the Hens a spot in the 24-team NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision Tournament.
Delaware (7-4) and Northeast Conference champion Saint Francis (9-2) kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Here are five ingredients that could cook up victory for Delaware, which would earn a trip to top-seeded South Dakota State (10-1) with a win.
1. Do not underestimate the visitors
Saint Francis is no slouch.
The Red Flash was competitive in season-opening losses to FBS Akron 30-23 in overtime and 31-21 to CAA member Richmond. They have since reeled of nine straight wins, eight by double digits, including Saturday’s 52-23 rout at Merrimack that decided the conference title.
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Saint Francis has been strong on both sides of the football. It ranks No. 8 nationally in FCS in scoring 37.6 points per game and 16th with 444.4 yards per game.
The defensive numbers are even better, with the Red Flash seventh in FCS allowing just 18.4 points per game and ninth giving up 310 yards per game.
The NEC is not among the stronger, deeper leagues in FCS. But Delaware did have all it could handle when NEC champ Sacred Heart visited in the first round of the 2021 spring FCS playoffs, a hard-earned 19-10 UD win.
This is also a much better Saint Francis team than Delaware saw in the schools’ only previous collision, a 27-10 UD win last fall at Delaware Stadium.
It has a new quarterback in JUCO transfer Cole Doyle, who was splitting time earlier in the season but has, in the last five games, completed 69.5 percent of his passes for 1,346 yards with 16 touchdowns and one interception.Delaware will have to be at its best.
2. Take advantage of chances
Delaware’s failure to seize opportunity has been a common and frustrating theme throughout the season. It became particularly agonizing while the Hens lost four of their last six games.
The Hens’ 28-for-42 scoring rate in the red-zone (66.7) ranks 112th among 123 FCS teams. They’ve struggled being able to make plays when the field gets smaller.
“You have to play a complete 60-minute game and there were a couple times this year where we didn’t do that,” said first-year Hens coach Ryan Carty, the back-up quarterback on Delaware’s 2003 NCAA title team who was offensive coordinator for Sam Houston’s spring 2021 FCS champs and New Hampshire 2013 and 2014 semifinalists.
“We, hopefully, can just learn from them . . . We have to find a way to make those specific plays at the end of the games that we haven’t made once or twice this year.”
Delaware has also attempted to convert 35 fourth downs, as least 12 more than every other CAA team except one. They’ve made 15, or 42.9 percent, which ranks ninth in the league.
“The one thing is just finish,” quarterback Nolan Henderson said when asked what he’d like to see his offense do better. “Finish games, finish drives. I feel like in every single game we’ve played this year we’ve moved the ball.”
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3. Run the football
Getting in more manageable down-and-distance situations will certainly help Delaware convert its opportunities. A strong running attack would help.
Delaware has been at its best this season when its running game provided a potentially explosive complement to its preferred passing attack. That was particularly evident in the 41-21 win at Rhode Island, where Delaware had a season-high 231 yards rushing.
But Delaware also showed that recently in the 49-17 rout of Monmouth and even in the 21-13 loss to Richmond.
That latter game was overshadowed by the Hens’ failure to get a first down on third-and-2 and fourth-and-1 runs late. But before that they did get Marcus Yarns’ clutch 36-yard touchdown gallop, Quincy Watson’s 26-yard run and a 19-yard Kyron Cumby contribution. All three are breakaway threats.
Henderson’s recent shoulder injury has limited how much the Hens are willing to have him carry the football, but he also remains a valid big-play threat with his legs.
If Delaware has success running the ball and, thus, controlling the clock, it surely enhances its chances.
4. Defend the long pass
Delaware is No. 1 in the CAA in total defense (278.1 ypg) and passing defense (134.1 ypg). But details make the difference and the Blue Hens have been victimized a bit lately by long throws.
Richmond quarterback Reece Udinski’s 45-yard heave to Jerry Garcia Jr. on fourth-and-4 at the UR 30 that put the Spiders in position for their late winning field at Delaware Stadium Nov. 12 was the most obvious.
But Saturday at Villanova, Wildcats quarterback Connor Watkins had a 58-yard third-and-10 completion on Villanova’s second touchdown drive and a 38-yard second-and-10 strike on their third to help make that win possible.
Only two CAA teams have fewer sacks than Delaware’s 20, so a little more pressure on the quarterback might also help along with tight coverage in the secondary.
5. Make kicks, avoid blocked punts
Brandon Ratcliffe’s two field goals at Villanova – from 32 and 25 yards — were as many as the Hens kicked all season, with freshmen Andrew MacMillan converting from 39 yards and Garrett Bennion from 24.
Delaware went with Ratcliffe, a third-year team member, after Bennion hit the upright on an extra-point try, just his second miss in 25 tries.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Delaware needs one of its kickers to deliver three valuable points on one or several occasions Saturday and he’ll need to come through.
Delaware also had late back-to-back punts blocked, the second leading to Villanova’s winning touchdown with 1:11 left. That just shouldn’t happen, and surely was a fix-it focus this week because punter Ben Dinkel has proven to be a valuable and capable weapon.
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