Danny Rocco is in his third year of turning the Delaware football program around.
It’s off to a good start for Rocco, who last season ended the Blue Hens’ unprecedented seven-year playoff drought in only his second year at the helm. But Delaware has a ways still to go to return to its championship-winning days of the past, and on Saturday, the Blue Hens received a reminder of what a true FCS powerhouse looks like.
No. 1-ranked North Dakota State, winners of seven of the last eight FCS national titles, handed No. 18 Delaware a 47-22 defeat on Tubby Raymond Field.
“That is the model. That is the program that you want to emulate,” Rocco said. “I’m really impressed with what I saw out there today. Now having said that, I was very disappointed in our performance today.”
Delaware struck first Saturday, taking a rare 2-0 lead less than two minutes into the game as Luke Frederick blocked a Bison punt that went out of the back of the end zone.
“We wanted to get off to a fast start. We went out there and blocked a punt, created a little bit of momentum and had a chance to maybe recover that thing in the end zone for a touchdown,” Rocco said.
The Blue Hens led for the next three minutes and two seconds. They wouldn’t again for the rest of the day.
Delaware’s ensuing possession lasted only three plays as quarterback Pat Kehoe was intercepted by North Dakota State safety Michael Tutsie. The Bison took over at the Hens’ 35-yard line, and running back Kobe Johnson scored a 1-yard touchdown only four plays later to put the visitors ahead for good.
Delaware again went three-and-out on its next possession, allowing the Bison to take a 10-2 lead on a 46-yard field goal by Griffin Cosa.
Jourdan Townsend gave Delaware favorable field position with a 59-yard return to the North Dakota State 33-yard line on the ensuing kickoff, but the Blue Hens settled for a 36-yard field goal from Jake Roth that brought the score to 10-5 with 2:17 left in the opening quarter.
North Dakota State scored the next 23 points unanswered, until Roth finally made his second attempt of the day with 3:29 left in the third quarter.
“Our offense had really nothing to speak of in the first half,” Rocco said. “The North Dakota State front four really overwhelmed our offensive line and their pressure really suffocated our quarterback. Pat needed to get the ball out a couple times. He’s got to throw those things on time, he held the ball.”
In the second half, Rocco turned to redshirt-sophomore quarterback Nolan Henderson.
“I think that uncertainty of having a firm pocket creates a conflict for any quarterback. I do think when you’re not able to evade the rush as easily, that becomes more problematic,” Rocco said. “Nolan gives us a different dynamic. He certainly can throw the ball extraordinarily well, but he does have the ability to extend some plays. It takes a little stress off your offensive line; you don’t have to be perfect in the pocket.”
Kehoe finished the day just 2-of-9 passing for 11 yards and an interception. Henderson went 9-of-12 for 125 yards and threw a pair of touchdown passes.
“Nolan came in and did a really nice job for us in the second half,” Rocco said. “We battled our way back – not necessarily into the game, I’m not trying to make it seem like it was suspenseful, but we battled our way back and made it very competitive and were able to have a couple of drives for scores.”
Henderson’s high school teammate at Smyrna, freshman running back Will Knight, also received an opportunity in the second half after receiving just one carry in the first. Knight was by far Delaware’s most productive back, carrying eight times for 115 yards (14.4 average).
“Will has a great combination of size, strength, physicality, vision and then speed,” Rocco said. “He’s elusive and fast. He’s got that suddenness to be able to up inside the tackles and get into those creases.”
Henderson’s first touchdown pass was a 7-yard strike to Gene Coleman that capped a 91-yard drive in the fourth quarter’s opening minutes. He later hit wide receiver Chichi Amachi, who made a diving catch on the left side of the end zone while somehow tapping one foot in bounds.
“That was an unbelievable catch,” Henderson said. “I made it a little tougher than it had to be on him, but I just put it out there and gave him a chance, and he made a heck of a catch.”