Elon has defeated all but one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s football members since its inaugural season in the conference in 2014. The Phoenix have yet to vanquish the Fightin’ Blue Hens of Delaware, having posted an 0-3 record in the teams’ brief series. Last season, Delaware bested then-No. 5 Elon 28-16 at crowded Delaware Stadium after Phoenix quarterback Davis Cheek exited with a season-ending torn ACL in the first quarter.
Elon was also without standout tailback Malcolm Summers that day, but as a result, the CAA got its initial taste of eventual league Offensive Rookie of the Year Jaylan Thomas, who rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown.
While Elon would certainly value notching its first victory over UD in only its second-ever home game against the Blue Hens, its much more pressing task, in general, is to make Saturday’s contest the first of a string of wins it will need to stay in the playoff hunt. Because the 2-4 Phoenix have just 11 games on its regular-season schedule in a year in which many FCS schools representing the “Power Three” conferences have 12 regular-season matchups slated, an immediate turnaround is necessary to keep pace in the ever-treacherous CAA race for the postseason.
Elon needs to run the table to arrive at the seven wins that would put it safely in the conversation for an at-large playoff bid.
That effort starts with a visit from No. 15 Delaware. The Blue Hens ascended to 15th in this week’s STATS FCS poll following their open date last Saturday and a near upset at the ACC’s Pittsburgh the week prior. The 17-14 battle at Pitt, in which Delaware held a 14-10 fourth-quarter lead, was easily the Hens’ most competitive game against an FBS opponent since their 2007 defeat of Navy. UD’s peak 2018 ranking was its preseason No. 15 slot, as it never fully recovered in the Top 25 after falling at home to upstart Rhode Island in the season opener.
Saturday’s 2 p.m. kickoff at Rhodes Stadium in Elon marks Delaware’s second CAA game of 2019, as it exacted revenge on URI by beating the Rams in a triple-overtime thriller in Week 2.
Sixth-year graduate student Mario Farinella, Delaware’s starting center and one of its captains, is among the few current Blue Hens who made the 2015 trek to Elon, the program’s lone road trip to the North Carolina campus to date.
“It’s funny because we sit in team meetings sometimes and Coach Rocco will ask us, ‘Hey, who’s been here?’ and I’m the only guy who’s raising his hand,” Farinella said with a chuckle after Wednesday’s practice.
There were a number of constructive takeaways for the UD offensive line coming out of Pitt and into the bye week, the 2019 preseason All-CAA selection explained.
“Especially playing a top-tier-caliber team like Pitt, you gotta win your one-on-one matchups, and at the end of the day, I think for the most part we did that. We were able to hold our own and give our skill guys a chance to make some plays, which we did throughout the game; we just gotta finish at the end. Coming off a bye week, we’ve had two weeks to kind of rest our bodies, [get] a couple guys back from injury, and we’re ready to go. You look back [at] last year, we had a big win off a bye week, and we’re looking for the same thing [this week].”
One of the keys for Delaware’s offensive line moving forward and starting with the tilt at Elon will be reversing a troubling trend of inadequate pass protection. The Blue Hens have already allowed 19 sacks on the year, which is the highest total in the CAA. The open date afforded coaches an opportunity for evaluation of scheme and personnel on an offensive line that saw some shuffling of players against Pitt (redshirt senior lineman M.J. Kehoe, for example, made a positional shift to get the start at Heinz Field and showed well, lowering a key run block for a chunk UD gain). The bye also gave coaches the flexibility to better incorporate reserves along the offensive line during practice reps, head coach Danny Rocco indicated this week.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, UD has recorded a single sack through five games, which ranks in the basement of the FCS, let alone marking a CAA low. Rocco noted following Tuesday’s practice that applying pressure to junior All-CAA quarterback Cheek, in addition to coming up with takeaways, will play a large role in his defense’s success at Elon.
“I do think that that’s kinda the one thing that has been able to generate momentum for us and points for us,” Rocco said of Delaware’s takeaways versus Penn and at Pitt.
All 14 of Delaware’s points at Pitt came off turnovers.
“Obviously, they’d done a really good job until last week down there at Elon at protecting the ball. Last week, they had a tough go of it, so we gotta be able to go out there and be real crisp and kinda beat them to the punch a little bit … They’ll have some things we haven’t seen, some unscouted plays, but we’ve had a good chance to look at what they do and hopefully, we can beat them to the punch and really offer tight coverage and offer some pressure on this quarterback. I think that’s really the key to maintaining and controlling their offense, is putting pressure on their quarterback.”
Cheek, who had his streak of 240 pass attempts without an interception snapped during a 45-10 loss to James Madison two weeks ago, had an uncharacteristically turnover-ridden performance at New Hampshire last week. Of four interceptions, two were pick-sixes going for 50 and 55 yards in a 26-10 defeat. Those gut-punching plays helped sink the Phoenix in a game that was otherwise tight statistically.
Regardless of Elon’s recent struggles, Rocco expressed that he has communicated with his team quite clearly what he associates with Phoenix football and playing in the central region of the Tar Heel State.
“I shared the other night my first trip to Elon, I was at Liberty,” Rocco said. “I don’t know if it was ‘07 or ‘08 and they were really, really good. I had a good team, too; we went down there and got spanked pretty good. They were in the Southern Conference at that time. So I kinda started with that because that was my first memory; they were in the Southern Conference, I was in the Big South.”
The 2007 Liberty team that endured that 42-14 beatdown at Elon went on to finish 8-3, so Rocco (and his Blue Hens) are keenly aware of the perils any team faces when it squares off with the Phoenix on its home sod. This time around in CAA competition, Elon’s desperation for a season-saving triumph over a ranked opponent and Delaware’s own high stakes as a team sitting at 3-2 overall in mid-October only kick the intensity up a notch.