Blue Hens set for showdown vs. No. 1 defending champ JMU

James Madison quarterback Bryan Schor, who is a senior this fall, escapes from Delaware’s Blaine Woodson in last year’s game. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — This is one of those opportunities that doesn’t come along every day.

James Madison is not only the defending NCAA FCS Division I football national champion, but the Dukes are still ranked No. 1 in the country.

And JMU has won 16 games in a row.

Now Delaware (2-1) gets its chance to try to topple the Dukes (1-0 CAA, 4-0 overall) when it hosts them on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in its Colonial Athletic Association opener.

“Maybe it’s from something of a boxing perspective,” said Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco, “but if you ever want to be the champion, you’ve got to beat the champion.”

Of course, no one considers Delaware a national-championship contender at the moment. The Hens haven’t even made the playoffs since 2010, when they reached the FCS finals.

On the other hand, how Delaware stacks up with JMU on Saturday could go a long way in showing where the Hens stand as a program.

“Obviously they’re a really, really good football team,” said senior offensive tackle Jake Trump. “They wouldn’t have won 16 games in a row if they weren’t. But the big challenge is always exciting.

“A lot of guys see it as a chance to really showcase their talents. I think we have a lot of guys on our team now that are really looking for their opportunity. So it’s going to be exciting to see what they do.”

As daunting as this challenge is, history says it’s not impossible for unranked Delaware to pull off the upset.

The Hens’ Thomas Jefferson runs the ball against JMU last year.

The Hens are 3-7 all-time against defending national champs and 3-8 vs. No. 1-ranked teams. One of those victories was over James Madison when the Dukes were the defending national champion in 2005.

For that matter, Delaware is 3-2 in its last five meetings with the Dukes. And they all but beat JMU in a 24-21 loss in 2015.

But then there was last year’s game.

After staying with JMU early — the contest was tied 7-7 after the first play of the second quarter — the game fell apart for Delaware. The Dukes reeled off 33 straight points before eventually posting a decisive 43-20 victory.

“I just remember that game being extremely frustrating — especially with an explosive start like that,” said Trump. “To lose momentum. … it’s tough to come back from that. I think if we keep the speed up like that this year then we’ll have a shot.”

“It’s a different year this year,” said senior tight end Charles Scarff. “I think we feel a little more comfortable where we are now. We’ve got to put up points on the offensive side and really stay on schedule if we’re going to have any chance of winning this game.”

If James Madison has has any weaknesses, they’re not easy to spot.

The Dukes lead the CAA in most statistical categories. Nationally, in FCS, they’re fifth in total offense (560.0 yards), sixth in scoring offense (47.3 points), fourth in total defense (231.8 yards) and fourth in scoring defense (12.0 points).

The Hens know what they have to do to win on Saturday. But knowing and doing aren’t always the same thing.

“The perfect formula is you keep the ball on offense,” said Rocco. “And you find a way to extend your drives and finish your drives with touchdowns and not field goals — and obviously protect the football and not turn it over.

“They minimize your probabilities as the game wears on. The objective is to win and beat them, not (just) stay close and keep it a game. That’s what they’ve done a great job of. They’ve done a great job of finishing games. … There’s a lot to be said for that.”

By the bye

Delaware had won six straight games following a bye week before last year’s loss to JMU.

Not surprisingly, Rocco thought last weekend’s open date was a good thing for the Hens.

After some self-evaluation, he said he and his staff did more fine-tuning than making major changes. More than anything, said Rocco, it’s about figuring out what your team does best.

“You’re kind of working through all the data, honing in what those things are,” said Rocco. “You’re really looking to build on the things you’re doing well and move away from the things you haven’t done as well.

“There’s still a reality that there’s a lot of our playbook that has yet to hit the three-age cycle we were in. In our world, we still see that as our base and core stuff. Someone else might see it as brand new if they see if for the first time.”

Extra points

Rocco said he expects offensive guard Steve Robinson, who was expected to be a starter, to see his first action of the season on Saturday. He’s been sidelined with a leg injury. … The six inductees into UD’s Athletics Hall of Fame will be honored at halftime of Saturday’s game. … Sophomore Jake Roth has booted 33 touchbacks in 63 career kickoffs.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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