When CAA champion Delaware meets 4-seed OVC champion Jacksonville State in Sunday’s FCS quarterfinal at JSU, it is sure to be some fowl play between the Blue Hens and Gamecocks. The gallinaceous mascots are far from the only similarity between these quarterfinalists, however.
Both teams have playoff hurdles hanging over them in their respective program histories. Delaware, which was once a deep postseason regular, seeks its first road playoff win since 2007 and its first national semifinal appearance since 2010. Meanwhile, JSU aims to knock out an FCS “Big Three” (MVFC/CAA/Big Sky) school in the CAA’s Hens.
Four of the Gamecocks’ last six playoff runs have ended with a loss to a “Big Three” member (2013 – Eastern Washington, 2015 – North Dakota State, 2016 – Youngstown State, 2018 – Maine).
The similarities continue more tangibly on the field. Both teams have no qualms that they prioritize establishing the run, which will be particularly apparent…
When Delaware has the ball
UD got off to a red-hot start this spring, and much of its success originated from rushing prowess keyed by starting tailback Dejoun Lee. With Lee leading the charge, the Blue Hens ran over Maine and Stony Brook in their first two weeks of action, then used the big play on the ground to defeat then-ranked Rhode Island on the road. That made for a 3-0 March, but since the calendar has flipped to April, Delaware has encountered incrementally more difficulty running the football.
After Delaware State and Villanova held the Hens to rushing totals below their season average, first-round playoff opponent Sacred Heart became the first team this spring to outright stymie UD. Delaware managed just 88 net rushing yards as part of an uninspiring 199 total yards of offense. SHU essentially took Lee out of the game, limiting the CAA Offensive Player of the Year and Walter Payton Award finalist to 35 yards on 13 carries.
Delaware’s prospects this week in Jacksonville, Alabama “start and end” with reestablishing the ground game, head coach Danny Rocco said, also noting that Sacred Heart presented a different style of defense Saturday night than what it had put on film this season in previous games, which caught the Blue Hens off guard. By the time the flummoxed UD offense had made the necessary adjustments to the unexpected scheme, Rocco said, communication was not taking place adequately, partially due to an offensive line playing with some inexperience following injuries to starters.
On paper, JSU has plenty of defensive ammunition to keep Delaware’s rushing offense trending negatively. Before its first-round win over triple-option Davidson, JSU had held its opponent to under 100 yards rushing in nine straight games. The Gamecocks have allowed just two rushes of 20 yards or longer in their last 11 games (359 total carries). That prevention of the big play will be something Delaware needs to emulate…
When JSU has the ball
JSU is known for explosive offense. That reputation was backed by JSU’s performance against Davidson, as the Gamecocks racked up nine plays of at least 20 yards across the rushing, passing, and kick-return games combination.
JSU, though helped by its numerous games played in the fall of this season, also is first nationally in first downs accumulated (237).
Quarterback Zion Webb, successor to the injured Zerrick Cooper, keeps the chains moving for the Gamecocks. In their active three-game winning streak, Webb has accounted for 312 yards and three TDs vs. Eastern Illinois, 304 yards and three TDs vs. Murray State, and 307 yards and three TDs vs. Davidson.
While Webb is riding a high, he will encounter the most accomplished defense JSU has seen this spring in Delaware. The Blue Hens, under the direction of defensive coordinator Manny Rojas, are second in the FCS in scoring defense (11.3 ppg) and fourth in total defense, surrendering 226.8 yards a contest. They also have wasted no time taking the ball away early in games, forcing a turnover on their opponent’s opening possession in half of their games this season.
That trend will put JSU’s -1 turnover margin to the test. While the Gamecocks have totaled 18 takeaways to lead the OVC and be fourth in the FCS in that category, their 19 giveaways on the 2020-21 season bring up the rear among FCS spring participants — though once again, the increased total games played due to fall competition inflates both numbers.
Regardless, JSU will need to win the turnover battle with Delaware so as to sustain drives, perhaps with a few of its signature big plays, and keep First Team All-CAA QB Nolan Henderson and the Hens offense at bay on the sideline.
RB Dejoun Lee — His 133.67 all-purpose yards/game are good for 11th in the FCS.
DE Chase McGowan — His four solo sacks have helped propel Delaware’s defensive resurgence and tie him with JSU’s DJ Coleman in sacks per game (.67).
OL Bradly Anyanwu — The redshirt freshman right guard is atop UD’s depth chart again this week. He entered after starter Carter Lynch’s ankle injury at Villanova. Lynch hurt his ankle rather early in the action, so Anyanwu has gotten heavy minutes across games versus Nova and SHU. Rocco has praised him as the strongest player on his team weight-room-wise.
DB Nicario Harper — The Buck Buchanan Award finalist and OVC Defensive Player of the Year defensive back will look to coax some mistakes out of UD’s typically ball-secure Henderson.
TE Trae Barry — The First Team All-OVC tight end now holds JSU’s program record for career receiving yards by a tight end (1,558).
DE DJ Coleman — The junior defensive end leads JSU’s “extraordinarily disruptive” pass rush, as it was described by Rocco.