In 2018, Elon entered its game at Delaware ranked fifth in the nation. The trajectory of its season was more than promising after an impressive 27-24 defeat of James Madison in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Then, in the first quarter of its contest the following week versus the Blue Hens, the Phoenix lost quarterback Davis Cheek to a season-ending torn ACL. Backup Jalen Greene filled in admirably and would navigate Elon to an FCS playoff berth, but the visitors went on to fall 28-16 that afternoon between the hedges at Delaware Stadium.
Last Saturday’s rematch of Delaware and Elon at Rhodes Stadium brought about another injury to a starting quarterback, as this time around, it was the Blue Hens losing their starter in the middle of the first quarter. Dual-threat redshirt sophomore Nolan Henderson scrambled to extend a third-down play with Delaware trailing 7-0 and was met with a helmet-to-helmet hit that knocked his lid to the grass. Henderson departed with concussion symptoms, walking off the field with support from UD medical staffers, and entered the concussion protocol. He was well enough to fly home with the team, but did not practice Tuesday as he continued in the protocol.
Delaware head coach Danny Rocco cited Henderson’s exit as a source of adversity for his team, but expressed disappointment in his ballclub’s response.
“I think a lot of things went into play here today and once it got down two scores, three scores, four scores, we did not perform well at all and we didn’t respond nearly as well as I wanted us to,” Rocco said during a postgame interview.
“We were playing good defense in the first half. They [Elon] ended up getting a touchdown and they had one or two big plays in that [scoring] drive, but we went down, we got the ball down there inside the 2, inside the 1, ran two plays down in there. We fumbled, or you’re really looking at a 7-7 game at halftime.”
Delaware’s most successful first-half drive was spoiled at the doorstep of the end zone when quarterback Pat Kehoe fumbled the zone-read exchange with running back Will Knight. The Hens were playing with tempo, but Elon’s Zack Monson pounced on the loose ball and the Phoenix seized momentum heading into the locker room.
“In retrospect, we were on the half-yard-line, second down,” Kehoe reflected. “I should have given the ball out.”
“We made critical mistakes. We shot ourselves in the foot,” the redshirt senior volunteered. “I made two critical mistakes today that resulted in us not being able to get points at the end of the first half and gave Elon points in the second half.”
Regardless of Delaware’s starter at quarterback for this Saturday’s tussle with No. 22 New Hampshire, the Blue Hens will need to stick with their ground attack more than they did at Elon, Rocco indicated during Monday’s presser.
“As you fall behind, it’s a little less probable that you’re gonna go out there and feature your run game. With that being said, hindsight, processing the whole thing, I think we abandoned our run game a little bit too soon,” he admitted.
“It got to 14-0 and then I think we pretty quickly got into, ‘Oh my gosh, we gotta throw it, throw it, throw it.’ Not that series, but the next series was the pick-six and then things kinda spiraled out of control. So, I think maybe a little more patience with the run game will create that production we’re looking for and I do think it’s something we’re going to have to really focus on here this week.”
Rocco did remark that Delaware’s offensive line, which has had persistent issues in pass protection and in opening holes for UD’s stable of backs, showed some improvement at Elon.
“I think our run game will be at its best when we block better. And I think that that’s kinda the focus this week. Now, I felt better about our offensive line’s performance Saturday down at Elon. I really felt like they were in sync and we had a good week and I thought that they were efficient out there in the game.”
The sizzling-hot New Hampshire Wildcats, led on an interim basis by associate head coach Ricky Santos as longtime head coach Sean McDonnell battles cancer, have put it together in the past month, winning their last four games and starting 3-0 in CAA play in that span. True freshman signal-caller and Roswell, Georgia native Max Brosmer was named CAA Rookie of the Week after guiding UNH to a 20-14 victory at then-No. 22 Stony Brook last Saturday.
“I will give him credit that he has a poise about him for a young eighteen-year-old kid,” Santos said of the 6-2, 204-pound Brosmer on this week’s CAA media teleconference.
“The moment isn’t too big for him. He loves the process of getting better and at the quarterback position, it’s all about how you prepare week in and week out and day in and day out… Your willingness to study your opponent, to look at defensive intent, to understand some of the nuances of what the other team is gonna throw at you. And he really relishes those moments and he enjoys it, so he’s somebody that we’re very encouraged with and hopefully, he continues to take the next step as the season moves along.”
Santos is quite familiar with competing at Delaware Stadium, where New Hampshire will look for every bit of Brosmer’s poise. Santos accompanied UNH in its 2015 trip to Newark while serving as his alma mater’s receivers coach, but his memorable entry at quarterback in New Hampshire’s 2004 showdown at Delaware is far better known. Then the Wildcats’ third-string quarterback, the redshirt freshman Santos was called upon after injuries and jumpstarted his collegiate career with a 24-21 upset of the defending national champion and top-ranked Blue Hens. The game lives on in both UD and UNH football lore, and Santos is prepared for a bustling Parents & Family Weekend crowd in the newest installment of the series between the ‘Cats and Hens.
“It’s as challenging and as tough an environment in all of FCS,” the 35-year-old recounted. “They have some of the greatest fans you’re gonna find. The place is gonna be packed… It’s just going to be an unbelievable atmosphere and just a great opportunity for us to go down there and try to steal one.”
Equipped with the CAA’s second-best defense in yards allowed per game (345) and the conference’s leading unit in terms of scoring defense (16.2 points per game), Santos and company are undaunted in their pursuit to keep the ball rolling at Delaware.
“You play at a place like New Hampshire in a conference like the CAA because you want to play at venues like this. They do such a good job of generating a good fan base and it’s gonna be high-energy,” concluded Santos, who won the Walter Payton Award in 2006 as part of his decorated playing career.
It will be the responsibility of No. 24 Delaware, which managed to cling to a Top 25 ranking after its 42-7 nightmare loss at Elon, to match its Parents Day crowd’s energy and to put on a much better showing against Brosmer and UNH. Though also based in the run-pass option, the Wildcats will bring a more vertical passing game compared to the flat passes that Elon employed to pick apart UD in the second half of its win, Rocco said.
“The thing that Cheek did extraordinarily well was just throw the ball horizontally… In doing that, they captured as much space as they could capture on the field. The ball would be caught and they’d be three yards down the field before we really can even rally to the ball.
“And that’s not really what they’re [UNH is] doing. They’re throwing the ball a little more down the field off the run-pass option.”
Rocco made it apparent, however, that he anticipates New Hampshire will test Delaware’s defense to see what adjustments have been made or are lacking.
“I’ve said this in the past: A lot of times, it’s common courtesy just to see if your opponent has solved its problem from the week before. So, I expect common courtesy that they’re at least gonna see whether we’ve fixed our problem [coverage of the flat pass]. Once you get past that, I don’t know that they’ll be trying to think that that’s the way they’re going to advance the ball. Shame on us if that’s the reality.”
Sophomore linebacker Johnny Buchanan, who called the loss at Elon certainly the worst he’s experienced as a starter at Delaware, remains focused and spoke to his team’s mindset with a fellow ranked opponent presenting both a stiff challenge and distinct opportunity to get back on track via a quality win Saturday.
“We have to treat every team the same way. New Hampshire’s coming off a couple great wins. Good for them, but that’s our next opponent. That’s how we’re looking at it.”