Halloween night will have passed by the time Delaware and No. 21 Towson kick off Saturday at Johnny Unitas Stadium, but for both the Fightin’ Blue Hens and Tigers, a loss in this regional rivalry game would have frightening consequences in respect to postseason aspirations.
The CAA teams separated by just under 60 miles are both 4-4 overall and are fighting to stay alive in the conference’s pack of schools in the FCS playoff hunt. Towson has dropped three consecutive CAA games since defeating Maine 45-23 in Orono on Sept. 14, while Delaware saw its conference record dip to 2-2 after a home loss to Richmond last Saturday in which it was plagued by big plays on the part of the Spiders.
[divider]MORE FCS FOOTBALL:
“They had a very significant effect on a lot of things,” Delaware head coach Danny Rocco said of Richmond’s bursts of yardage on special teams and offense. “Obviously, the outcome of the game was the biggest thing it affected, but it did affect the momentum of the game and kinda the emotion within the game. So, they had four plays in the game, two kickoff returns, one for 100, one for I think it was 82, and they had two throws, one for 63, one for 67. [All] that really accounted for 28 points.”
STATS FCS Special Teams Player of the Week Aaron Dykes’ pair of kickoff-return touchdowns were gut-punches to a Blue Hens team that found itself playing from behind all day and that came within a field goal of Richmond after Pat Kehoe’s 14-yard touchdown lob to Bryce De Maille with 3:03 remaining in the third quarter. The Spiders answered that score a mere 1:27 later with a touchdown of their own in the form of Joe Mancuso’s 63-yard hook-up with Keyston Fuller.
— Richmond Football (@SpiderFootball) October 28, 2019
“Tough pill to swallow, but we’ve flushed that one and [are] moving forward here to Towson,” Rocco concluded about the 35-25 setback, his first loss to Richmond since departing UR for Delaware in December 2016. In fact, last week’s outcome was his first loss on either side of the Richmond-Delaware series, as he was unbeaten against UD before joining the Blue Hens.
Delaware aims to provide another of its coaches with a more successful outing against his former team Saturday as Blue Hens offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jared Ambrose returns to Towson to face his older brother and 11th-year Towson head coach Rob Ambrose. Jared Ambrose had held the same offensive coordinator post under Rob Ambrose since the Tigers’ 2013 National Championship run and he was Rob’s tight ends coach and quarterbacks coach in 2009-2010 and 2011, respectively, prior to being named TU offensive coordinator halfway through the 2012 season.
“Honestly, I’m kind of a boring guy. I don’t really feel anything about it,” Jared explained after Wednesday’s practice at Delaware. “I put all the focus into our players. I think that’s what is most important and that’s what they deserve. I take myself out of it.”
However, Ambrose expressed deep appreciation for the opportunity to reconnect with family and familiar faces at Unitas Stadium before the business of game-day begins.
“The thing I’m most excited about … is just the fact that I get to see my brother, who’s my best friend; he was my best man at my wedding. And my father’s also on the sidelines at most [Towson] games, so I get to see him. Getting to see my family and the guys I coached with and the guys I used to coach—all the players are really special to me, so I miss them … Getting to go back there and see a bunch of people I worked with for a decade is going to be cool.”
Rocco, who himself is well-traveled as a coach and is experienced in coaching against former colleagues and against relatives, has sought to maximize the advantages of having a coach on hand who is armed with such recent and relatively intimate knowledge of the opponent.
“The familiarity with me and Richmond really was about two years ago, that type of thing as far as personnel and anything,” said Rocco following the Hens’ Tuesday practice in contrasting his Richmond background with Ambrose’s Towson roots. “There’s obviously a different kind of experience playing against a team you coached before.”
"I think for Jared, there’s a very immediate similarity and familiarity with Towson. He’s very close to the coaches and the structure, his brother, and then the players. You have to say 90% of the players on their team are guys that Jared knows a lot about, is familiar with. It’s been interesting. We’ve been asking a lot of questions; I promise you that. It’s a good experience for us as coaches to sorta go back and coach against people you have relationships with.”
Doubtless, plenty of those questions have centered on prolific Towson quarterback Tom Flacco, who was the second Flacco to wow a Delaware Stadium crowd when he nearly pushed his Tigers to last-second win at UD in 2018 before falling 40-36.
“I’ve known Tommy since he was 10, 11 years old when I was here [at Delaware coaching Joe Flacco as an offensive graduate assistant] the first time,” Ambrose shared.
While Rocco’s personal memory of Flacco does not extend nearly that far back, the 2018 CAA Offensive Player of the Year and HERO Sports FCS All-American Third Team selection did more than enough in Towson’s visit at Delaware a year ago to be easy to recall and stick in the longtime coach’s mind.
“I watched last year’s game … that was here in [Delaware] Stadium and he had about nine or ten plays that were kinda like, ‘Oh my gosh, did he really do that?’” said Rocco. “He’s a different kind of mobile quarterback [than Mancuso]. He’s not the big, physical, downhill runner, but he’s the guy that is elusive and can avoid the rush, extend the play, and then make plays with his feet or throw the ball down the field.”
Discussing Towson QB Tom Flacco, #BlueHens coach Rocco referenced this hurdle of eventual Chargers 2nd-round pick Nasir Adderley as one of 9 or 10 “Oh my gosh, did he really do that?” plays from last season’s meeting. @DelawareFB again tasked w/ slowing Flacco Saturday. (????: TSN) pic.twitter.com/WQ4WpYERa0
— Daniel Steenkamer (@dsteenkamer6) October 31, 2019
Flacco is complemented by an aggressive, ball-hawking Towson defense that is atop the CAA in turnover margin (+8), ranks second in the league in turnovers forced with 17, and is tied for the conference lead in interceptions with 11.
Observed Ambrose, “The thing that sticks out is they’re fast. They are fast from the front all the way to the back. They’ve got D-linemen, linebackers, DBs who can run. They’re physical as always; they get around the ball. If you look at their numbers, they’ve created more turnovers than anybody else in the conference. So those things stand on their own. They’re a good defense.”
Ambrose went on to point out that some of Towson’s defensive statistics that trend toward the lower half of the CAA are deceiving when one considers that TU has already opposed Florida, James Madison and Villanova this season, all of which are among the more potent offenses in Division I.
For the first time since his days as a Hens grad assistant and in a “flipped script” from 2018, it will be Ambrose’s job to crack the code to the Tigers defense and to get Delaware moving and on the board at Unitas Stadium, whether the offense is commanded at quarterback by Pat Kehoe, Nolan Henderson, or, as Rocco has suggested will be the case, by a combination. Before all that commences, though, Ambrose will make sure to reach out to the familiar faces of the past decade of his coaching career when he can.
“The thing you coach against a lot is just your good friends because staffs get split up and then you end up coaching against the guy that used to be on your same staff,” Rocco said. “It’s part of the journey and I do think it’ll be a very emotional, exciting moment for Jared and Rob both, really.”
Listen to this week's episode of B-Mac and Herd's FCS Podcast. You can also find the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart, Stitcher and Spreaker.
SUBSCRIBE: B-Mac and Herd's FCS Podcast