When the FCS committee announced its 24-team playoff field, Delaware was not a lock to be selected. The Blue Hens had finished the regular season 7-4 and had lost three of their final four games. In those final four games, Delaware suffered losses to eventual playoff teams Elon and Richmond and ended the regular season with a 29-26 loss to a Villanova squad that was the preseason Colonial Athletic Association favorite but suffered through a disappointing 6-5 season.
Armed with its playoff berth, Delaware came out smoking in the first round, not totally unexpected, but the margin of victory may have raised some eyebrows in a 56-17 victory over Saint Francis.
Entering the game, the Blue Hens were a 7.5-point favorite, according to BetMGM.
As impressive as its opening victory was, we’re guessing that nobody’s predicting another 39-point win when Delaware faces the biggest challenge of any second-round participant – at least according to the seedings – when the Blue Hens visit top-seeded South Dakota State on Saturday.
SDSU (10-1) had a first-round bye.
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The last time these two met in the postseason, it didn’t work out so hot for the Blue Hens.
SDSU defeated Delaware 33-3 in the national semifinals during the abbreviated 2020-2021 spring season. The following week, SDSU lost to Sam Houston 23-21 in a heart-breaker, surrendering the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds left.
Besides being the top seed, SDSU has even more incentives this year. This is the 11th straight trip to the postseason for the Jackrabbits, who are looking for their first FCS title.
So Delaware won’t be able to sneak up on this year’s top seed.
The bigger question is, can the Blue Hens win the game?
If early season Delaware shows up, why not?
Of course, opening day Delaware would be a better version. The Blue Hens opened the season by winning at FBS Navy, 14-7.
That’s the same Navy team that beat a UCF team that is playing in the American Athletic Conference championship. The week before that game, Navy lost just 35-32 to Notre Dame.
Beating Navy began a 5-0 run for Delaware, which ended when the CAA schedule got a little more treacherous. The first loss was 27-21 at a William & Mary team that is the No. 5 seed in the FCS tournament.
So three of the four losses were to FCS playoff teams, with the other to Villanova.
That’s the type of schedule that would prepare any team for the postseason, but SDSU wasn’t exactly playing a weak schedule.
The lone loss was an opening 7-3 defeat to the Big Ten’s Iowa, a team that has trouble finding the end zone but no problem keeping opponents out of it.
There was also a 23-21 signature win for the Jackrabbits over North Dakota State, which has merely won nine of the last 11 FCS titles.
What Delaware will need is a mistake-free game from sixth-year quarterback Nolan Henderson, who has thrown 32 touchdowns, but also nine interceptions. In the opening playoff win over Saint Francis, he threw for 266 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception, while also rushing for 14 yards and a score.
In these times of frequent transfers, it’s not every day a quarterback spends six years at the same school, but Henderson (6-1, 195) has done that. When he suffered a season-ending abdominal injury in the fourth game last season, Delaware never rebounded, going 2-5 in their final seven games after starting the season 3-1.
Henderson played in that national semifinal loss to SDSU during that 20-21 spring season.
He completed 18 of 21 for 142 yards, no touchdowns or interceptions, but he was sacked seven times.
That will be the key. Delaware quarterbacks have been sacked 26 times (2.16 per game), which is 71st among FCS teams.
It figures to be a low-scoring game. SDSU is third nationally in scoring defense, allowing 15.5 points, one spot ahead of Delaware, which allows 16.25 ppg.
From Delaware’s perspective, Henderson will have to come up big and so will the ground game. Delaware averages 4.4 yards per carry. SDSU allows just 2.5 yards per carry, which is No. 1 in the nation.
Besides Henderson, who has only rushed for 147 yards and four scores, senior Kyron Cumby and the rest of the Delaware running backs will need to play a big role. Cumby has rushed for 602 yards (6.6 avg.) and four touchdowns.
The running backs will have to take some pressure off Henderson, but he remains the key as to whether Delaware, which won an FCS title in 2003, can keep up with the biggest heavyweight in the tournament.