NCAA playoff football returns to Delaware Stadium on Saturday and long-time Blue Hens fans are sure to have their memories stirred.
The Blue Hens themselves, who are too young to have witnessed many of Delaware’s previous postseason exploits, will try to create some future fond recollections.
No. 23-ranked Delaware (7-4) faces Northeast Conference champion Saint Francis (9-2) at 2 p.m. in the first round of the 24-team NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision Tournament. The winner earns a second-round trip to top-seeded South Dakota State (10-1).
RED FLASH ON A ROLL:Five keys for UD win in FCS playoff starts with respecting St. Francis
This is the 23rd time during the 50-year period the NCAA has conducted playoffs for its lower-division teams that Delaware has taken part, but just the third since 2010. Delaware lost a first-round game at James Madison in 2018 but advanced to the semifinals during the 2021 spring playoffs, which began with a home win over Sacred Heart, before losing at South Dakota State in the semifinals.
In countdown fashion, here are Delaware’s 10 most memorable first-round NCAA playoff games:
10: Dec. 1, 1973—Grambling 17, Delaware 8: In the first year of NCAA playoffs, Delaware was matched up against Grambling in a game at Convention Hall in Atlantic City. That was familiar territory for the Blue Hens, who’d won four straight Boardwalk Bowls there from 1968-71, and were wire-service national small-college champs in 1971 and 1972. But Grambling, which had several future pro players, was superior. The Tigers jumped to a 10-0 first-quarter lead and did what few other UD foes could – corral the Wing-T attack, as the Blue Hens mustered 85 total yards and minus-23 rushing.
9: Nov. 27, 1976—Northern Michigan 28, Delaware 17: A trick play doomed Delaware at the start of the Division II playoffs at Delaware Stadium. Northern Michigan was the defending NCAA champ and arrived with a 10-1 record to take on the 7-3-1 Hens. But Delaware allowed only 110 first-half yards and took a 10-0 halftime lead. It was 17-7 entering the fourth period after Jeff Komlo’s 3-yard TD pass to Bob Sabol. But Northern Michigan scored three fourth-period touchdowns, though it’s only the second go-ahead TD anyone recalls, not too fondly. It was second-and-4 at the UD 35 when Northern Michigan trotted off two players in an apparent substitution. But one stopped just before going off the field while the other was replaced. The player straddling the sideline was Steve Grigsby, who then caught a touchdown pass from Steve Mariucci – the future NFL coach – with no defenders in sight with 4:40 left. Referees and Delaware had been told about the play, and coach Tubby Raymond said Delaware should have been ready for it. He also said: “We would not use something like that. It was meant to deceive and it did.”
8: Dec. 4, 1982—Delaware 20, Colgate 13: This doesn’t top the list of Delaware’s great wins over Colgate, but it was certainly critical. It was the Blue Hens’ first I-AA playoff win – Delaware had moved up from Division II in 1980 – and came in what was then an 8-team field. Delaware arrived with a 10-1 mark, its only loss to Temple, and a nine-game winning streak. But visiting Colgate was a handful on the typically soggy grass surface at Delaware Stadium. A 1-yard run by Cliff Clement erased a 13-12 Colgate lead with 8:22 left but the Hens’ defense needed three subsequent stops to secure the win over Colgate, including All-American cornerback George Schmitt’s second interception. Delaware limited the Red Raiders to 72 rushing yards and Hens QB Rick Scully rushed for 85 yards.
7: Nov. 28, 1992—Delaware 56, Samford 21: The Blue Hens hadn’t won a playoff game in six years and Samford became victims of Delaware’s determination. The Hens’ 586 yards of total offense were the most in 10 years and the 56 points the most Delaware had scored in a I-AA playoff game. Billy Vergantino demonstrated his mastery as maestro of the Wing-T offense – “A marvelous quarterback,” Samford coach Terry Bowden said – while running for 86 yards and a touchdown and passing for 199 yards and three more scores against the bewildered Bulldogs. Daryl Brown rushed for 166 yards to further the Samford agony.
6: Nov. 25, 2000—Delaware 49, Portland State 14: “The rest of the nation better watch out for them,” Portland State coach Tim Walsh warned after Delaware steamrolled Portland State at Delaware Stadium. The Blue Hens showed the offensive balance that made them such a handful, rushing for 357 yards – led by Craig Cummings’ 84 – and throwing for 263. Matt Nagy’s 64-yard touchdown strike to Jamin Elliott highlighted the senior quarterback’s afternoon. A fourth-and-1 stop by Delaware’s defense at the UD 36 set the tone. “That was huge for us,” defensive end Mike Cecere said.
BEST OF THE BLUE HENS:Ranking the top 100 University of Delaware male athletes of all time
5: Nov. 29, 1986—Delaware 51, William & Mary 17: Delaware had lost three straight close games in its budding rivalry with William & Mary, which wouldn’t join the Blue Hens in the Yankee Conference until 1993. One had been by a 24-18 score at Delaware Stadium on Oct 18. Delaware headed to Williamsburg coming off a loss at Boston University in its regular-season finale but played one of its most complete games during Raymond’s reign. The Hens scored on eight of nine possessions and intercepted four passes, including one returned 41 yards for a touchdown by Kevin McCown. Quarterback Rich Gannon, in the only playoff win of his stellar career, passed for 234 yards and ran for 65 and three touchdowns as Delaware piled up 519 yards.
4: Nov. 25, 1978—Delaware 42, Jacksonville State 27: The Blue Hens seemed in peril in their Division II playoff opener at Delaware Stadium. The visitors from Alabama had erased an early 13-point deficit and led 16-13 at halftime and 19-13 early in the third quarter. Jeff Komlo’s 6-yard run on a quarterback keeper had just pushed Delaware ahead 33-27 early in the fourth period when an unlikely hero stepped up for Delaware. Sophomore linebacker K.C. Keeler, who 23 years later would become Delaware coach, intercepted three straight Jacksonville State passes, enabling the Blue Hens to pull away on another Komlo TD run and Brandy Kennedy’s field goal.
3: Nov. 29, 2003—Delaware 48, Southern Illinois 7: Many were stunned when the NCAA matched up No 3-ranked Delaware and No. 4 Southern Illinois in a first-round game. Even more surprising was the Blue Hens’ dominance from the get-go. Delaware built a 27-0 first-quarter lead and turned four of the Salukis’ six turnovers into touchdowns and blocked a punt for another TD. Germaine Bennett rushed for 104 yards and Antawn Jenkins powered for 99. But what many remember most about this game are the hits. Cornerback Leon Clarke delivered the first, slamming SIU quarterback Joel Sambursky — “Oh!” the crowd gasped that instant — on a second-quarter dash toward the end zone and causing a fumble that teammate KeiAndre Hepburn recovered. Sambursky then had to leave the game and go to the hospital in the second half after being crunched by blitzing safety Jamie Rotonda.
2: Nov. 23, 2007—Delaware 44, Delaware State 7: Delaware had refused to ever play its First State neighbors. So the NCAA created a matchup in the first round of the I-AA playoffs. It attracted a postseason record crowd of 19,765 to Delaware Stadium and a national TV audience on a cold, wind-whipped Friday after Thanksgiving. The MEAC champion Hornets were overmatched from the start as Delaware jumped to 20-0 first-quarter and 30-0 halftime leads. Delaware limited DSU to 144 total yards. Omar Cuff ran for a school-record 288 yards as Delaware began its drive to the NCAA finals.
1: Nov. 27, 1993—Delaware 49, Montana 48: On an ice-cold afternoon at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in Missoula, Delaware eked out a win in what remains the only meeting ever between the two I-AA/FCS powers. Red-shirt freshman quarterback Leo Hamlett, who replaced starter Keith Langan in the second half, zipped a 32-yard touchdown pass to Keita Malloy with 55 seconds left and Steve Leo added the decisive PAT. Montana had just gone ahead 48-42 on Damon Boddie’s 80-yard kickoff return after Delaware tied the game 42-42 following Lanue Johnson’s 72-yard TD run. But Andy Larson’s PAT try sailed wide right. That ended up being the difference in a game that was tied six times. Daryl Brown rushed for 188 yards and two TDs while passing Chuck Hall as Delaware’s all-time leading rusher. Johnson had 163 ground yards. “Sometimes it was hard just knowing who had the ball,” a Montana cornerback said, a familiar lament for those trying to defend the Wing-T for the first time. Delaware had to deal with Montana quarterback Dave Dickenson, who threw for 409 of his team’s 493 total yards. “It was such a great effort,” Raymond said afterward, “and one of the things that made it such a fine thing was that there were so many heroes.”
Have an idea for a compelling local sports story or is there an issue that needs public scrutiny? Contact Kevin Tresolini at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @kevintresolini. Support local journalism by subscribing to delawareonline.com.