Delaware was a regular in the FCS playoffs during the 2000s, reaching the semifinals in 2000, winning the national title in 2003, making the quarterfinals in 2004, then losing in the championship game in 2007 and 2010. It took until 2018 for the Blue Hens to return to the postseason, where they lost to James Madison in the first round.
Meanwhile, South Dakota State has risen in the 2010s to be a consistent threat in the bracket. The Jackrabbits were a first-to-second-round team from 2012 to 2015, then made the quarterfinals in 2016 and the semifinals in 2017 and 2018.
Delaware is back to being relevant nationally, while SDSU is eyeing what’s been an elusive national title.
The game begins at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN.
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When Delaware has the ball
Quarterback Nolan Henderson injured his left non-throwing shoulder in the quarterfinals versus Jacksonville State, but he returned to the game to gut out the win. It will be interesting to see his willingness to run against SDSU because that element has really made this Delaware offense reach a new level.
Henderson has a great arm and can sling it (117-170 for 1,340 yards, 10 TDs, and 4 INT.). While his 87 rushing yards and two touchdowns don’t jump off the page, he can scoot when he wants to. It’s a key part of a balanced offense featuring a strong rushing attack led by running back Dejoun Lee, who was the CAA’s Offensive Player of the Year. Delaware has always prided itself on physical football, and it shows with a run-first attitude behind a big offensive line.
The matchup should be a great, black-and-blue battle as SDSU’s defensive line doesn’t budge, and the linebackers love nothing more than to come up and smack the ball carrier.
What the Blue Hens can take advantage of is SDSU’s secondary. Finding success on the ground will be tough, but testing the defensive backs early could set up the run, which is the opposite of the typical approach. The Jacks gave up 316 yards passing to a talented group of Southern Illinois receivers last week. The combination of Thyrick Pitts and Gene Coleman II gives Delaware a level of explosiveness it lacked in past seasons.
When SDSU has the ball
Delaware is traditionally a strong defensive program, and this spring is no different. Nothing comes easy against this unit as it’s aggressive in its tackling and rarely caught out of position. The Blue Hens have the No. 2 scoring defense (11.7), the No. 2 passing defense (108.7), and the No 20 rushing defense (114.3). There isn’t a particular area to attack. SDSU will just have to line up good on good and prove it’s the better team as the game progresses.
The Jacks have arguably the best offensive line in the FCS. And their two-headed monster at running back in Pierre Strong Jr. and Isaiah Davis is the best friend for a true freshman quarterback. Neither team will be able to lean heavily on the run, so Mark Gronowski needs to keep making plays with his arm. He has taken care of the ball (13 TDs to 3 INT.), but the Blue Hens will try to bait him on some throws. Delaware has picked off 11 passes this spring, led by cornerback Nijuel Hill’s three.
A position that hasn’t been utilized a lot this spring for SDSU is the tight ends. They haven’t been asked to do too much in the passing game with the Jacks going to the WRs much more than involving the TEs. The room only has 18 total catches. Yet those dudes all stand 6-foot-5, with some being 6-foot-7. If the Jacks want to throw in a wrinkle, it can scheme up some mismatches specifically designed for the tight ends that they haven’t shown on film.
These two teams are built the same. It’s a wash when comparing who has the edge at every position. So whichever quarterback has the better game will be the deciding factor.
Stay tuned for Friday’s semifinal score predictions.