Blue Hens’ defense living up to preseason billing

NEWARK — Playing defense when things are going well is one thing.

But playing it when your back is against the wall, in the second half of a game your team is going to lose, that’s when you really find out what a defense is made of.

That’s why Delaware coach Danny Rocco came away especially encouraged by the Blue Hens’ defense in UD’s 27-0 loss at No. 18 Virginia Tech on Saturday.

“You’ve got to be able to deal with and overcome adversity,” said Rocco. “And that’s what our defense did, I thought, at a high level on Saturday. Not that I didn’t think they could or would, I just didn’t know.

“When you look at how that front seven held up in the run game for 60 minutes, they (the Hokies) never really broke out of there. To get a good back on the ground, you’ve got to want to tackle him. And you’ve got to want to tackle him when it’s late and you’re tired and beat up and worn down.”

Delaware figured its veteran defense would be the backbone of its team this season. And, two games into the schedule, it’s becoming pretty clear that the Hens can hold their ground.

With Delaware (1-1) hosting Cornell (0-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m., the Hens are ranked second in the Colonial Athletic Association in several defensive categories, including total defense (263.5 yards), scoring defense (15.0 points) and rushing defense (70.0 yards).

Delaware coach Danny Rocco watched his defense turn the Hokies away a few times in Saturday’s loss/UD Athletics Jesse Caris

On Saturday, Virginia Tech started three second-half drives at the Delaware 41 or closer. But the Hens surrendered just three total points on the three possessions.

And one of the Hokies’ touchdowns in the game came on a 61-yard punt return.

“No matter where they are on the field, they’re going to try their best to stop them,” quarterback Joe Walker said about Delaware’s defense.

“We fumbled the ball back on the 20 or less and they stopped them. That’s great, that’s outstanding. A lot of people can’t do that, especially with the momentum that you give them on a turnover like that.”

Rocco pointed out that defensive coordinator Chris Cosh and most of his staff came intact from Richmond,

“I think we’re fast, we’re physical, we’re fundamentally sound,” said senior linebacker Charles Bell. “We’re smart — we can figure out what we need to do. We can scheme up teams and make it more complicated for them.

“You’re tired, you’re sore, it’s hot. … But you’ve just got to keep tackling physically, run your feet through, make contact and tackle well.”

Bell is a part of a particularly good bunch of linebackers where the starters also include Troy Reeder, Anthony Jackson and Colby Reeder. Bell and Troy Reeder are also two of the Hens’ team captains.

A second-year captain, Bell is only the sixth player in program history to serve as captain in multiple seasons.

“We want to be the leaders of the defense,” Bell said about the linebackers. “We want to go out there and we want to play the best and do what we can to help the team every game.”

Walker making things happen

Walker showed off his sprinting ability on Saturday when he ran down Virginia Tech’s linebacker Terrell Edmonds after a 55-yard return on a a third-quarter interception.

The junior quarterback tackled Edmonds at the Delaware 32. The stop looked even bigger when the Hokies fumbled on the next play.

QB Joe Walker made a few big plays against Virginia Tech./UD Athletics/Jesse Caris

 

“Once I target something, I just believe I can go get it,” said Walker. “You always want to make sure you put your defense back on the field. They stopped them.”

Of course, Walker knows his main job is to get Delaware’s offense in the end zone. The Hens have just two touchdowns this season and have only one TD on five trips inside the red zone this year.

Against Virginia Tech, Delaware didn’t score any points despite twice having the ball inside the Virginia Tech 13.

“Those things really overpower the good things that you do in a game,” saidd Walker. “When you walk out, you don’t feel good about anything really. It just comes down to executing, in all positions. We need to get better, starting with me.”

Rocco remains impressed with Walker’s athletic ability. Before subtracting losses, Walker has 108 yards on 22 carries this year.

“The more I’m here, the more I recognize how talented Joe is,” said Rocco. “Joe is just an extraordinary athlete. … I think we’ve just got to continue to be able to build this offense and our system around the talents that we have within our system.

“Hopefully we will gain some production here as we get deeper into the season.”

End of the beginning

When he looked at this year’s schedule, Rocco said it was pretty simple to separate it into two segments.

Saturday’s game against Cornell will end an opening stretch of three nonconference contests. After an open date, the Hens then start their eight-game CAA slate.

“We’ve got a three-game season … then I’m going to take a step back and I’m to figure out what I’m going to do,” said Rocco. “We’ll have a better understanding of who we’ve got and how we can better utilize our personnel.”

The fact that if Delaware doesn’t win on Saturday it’s going to have to sit around for two weeks with a 1-2 record isn’t lost on Rocco.

“It’s a long time between opportunities to play again,” he said. “That’s the one thing that I think is most unique about football. … You’ve got to live with the result until you’ve got an opportunity to go out there and compete again.”

Extra points

Junior receiver Vinny Papale stayed behind in a Virginia hospital on Saturday night after bruising a lung. But he was back in Newark on Sunday. While he’s doubtful to play against Cornell, he is expected to make a fairly quick return. … Cornell will be just the third Ivy League program that Delaware has faced and the first since 1983. The Hens are 2-3 all-time vs. Penn and 2-0 vs. Princeton. … Nine different players have accounted for Delaware’s 23 receptions so far. Senior Diante Cherry has a team-high seven catches for 124 yards.

Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or walter@newszap.com.

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