Blue Hen defense shines in opening loss

Sophomore defensive tackle Blaine Woodson had five tackles, including a sack, against Jacksonville. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Sophomore defensive tackle Blaine Woodson had five tackles, including a sack, against Jacksonville. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — It started out like it might be a long night for Delaware’s defense.

On the opening drive of the season, the Blue Hens allowed Jacksonville to march 90 yards on 14 plays for a touchdown.

But, it turned out, that wasn’t a sign of things to come.

While Delaware lost, 20-14, on Friday night, its defense surrendered just two field goals the rest of the way in what ended up being a pretty impressive performance.

“There were a lot of new people out there,” said sophomore defensive tackle Blaine Woodson. “There were a lot of people who hadn’t started before — hadn’t played before. For them to go out there and see what they could do and see what our defense is capable of — shutting down a real good offense — was pretty cool.”

With their offense still trying to find its way, the Hens (0-1) hope they can rely on their defense again when they host Lafayette (0-1) at 6 p.m. on Saturday.

After the Dolphins’ first drive in the opener, Delaware’s defense allowed just 249 yards and six points.

Remember, just two years ago, the Hens put up some of the worst defensive stats in the program’s history. Coach Dave Brock said this year’s defense is definitely much better at tackling.

“I thought there was a little bit of anxiety, I thought there was a little bit of nervousness in the first drive,” said Brock. “But I thought the kids battled. After that first drive, we really played a very, very good defensive football game. … I thought we tackled better than we had tackled in a long time against some very, very good skill people.

“I felt like we were playing the type of defense we needed to play to give us chance to win the game all the way until the end.”

The Hens forced Jacksonville to punt seven times and allowed the Dolphins to convert on just 3-of-13 third-down situations after the opening drive.

Of course, Delaware also knows one good performance doesn’t make a whole season.

“We have to get better at tackling,” said Woodson. “It’s the fundamental of defense. You can always get better at tackling. No matter what, there’s going to be missed tackles. But we hope to not have any of them.”

One-man show?

After rotating quarterbacks Blake Rankin and Joe Walker by quarters against the Dolphins, Brock plans on sticking with just one QB against Lafayette.

“I’ve got an idea of what I’m going to do,” Brock said on Tuesday. “I want to make sure that it works out the way I want it to work out in practice. … If the player performs and does what we need him to do.

“I don’t feel like the quarterbacks were the problem. I don’t place the blame there.

“I don’t think that either guy really had a great evaluation opportunity the other night,” he added. “We didn’t play well enough anywhere to get that offensively. What I want to find out is, let’s see if one of these guys can go do it.”

Rankin completed 6-of-10 passes for 60 yards while Walker was 3-for-9 for 52 yards. Both QBs ran for 14 yards but Walker did gain 25 yards before losing 11 yards on a pair of sacks.

Walker’s speed was evident on a couple of his runs.

Lafayette coach Frank Tavani said the Leopards will prepare the same no matter which QB Delaware uses.

“They’re still running the same plays,” said Tavani. “One is usually a little more athletic and I think that’s certainly the case. They’re both good players.”

Fast start for Jones

Anybody who saw Hodgson’s football team the past few years knows that multi-position player Ray Jones is a pretty special athlete.

He looks like he might be pretty good at the college level, too.

Starting his first game as a true freshman safety against Jacksonville, Jones finished with six tackles and a pass breakup. He also returned a kickoff 38 yards to set up the Hens’ last touchdown.

Jones even looked impressive sprinting 96 yards after picking up a loose ball that was later ruled an incomplete pass.

“He’s got an awful lot of confidence,” said Brock. “He’s handled his business, he’s practiced really, really hard. He’s committed to learning what we’re trying to do, how we’re trying to do it. He has no fear of making a mistake. He goes full-blast in practice, he goes full-blast in meetings, he goes full-blast in walkthroughs.

“He’s an unusual young player in that he’s a little bit mature beyond his years.”

While everyone agrees that Jones still has a lot to learn, there’s also a feeling his potential is pretty enormous right now.

“I’m excited to see what he can do,” said Woodson. “It’s kind of cool to see that he’s playing now as a freshman and he’s doing well as a freshman. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Extra points

Lafayette is mourning the death of senior tight end Brian Keller, who was killed in a car accident in June. “Our team is still really struggling with that,” said Tavani. “They pass his locker every time they come out of the tunnel.” … Sophomore middle linebacker Charles Bell had a team-high seven tackles for the Hens in the opener. … Sam Houston State (0-1), coached by former Blue Hen coach K.C. Keeler, moved into the No. 1 spot in Monday’s Stats FCS Division I poll. Many of the top teams in the rankings lost their opener. … In a series that started in 1914, Delaware has faced Lafayette 25 times. But they’ve only met once since 1972. In 2004, the Hens beat the Leopards, 28-14, in the I-AA playoffs.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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