Henderson, Hens can’t complete comeback

QB Nolan Henderson made some big plays running the ball for the Hens on Saturday. (Delaware sports information)

TOWSON, Md. — Even the way it turned out, it was a highlight-reel play.

On a fourth-and-three, at the Towson 15, with just over a minute left, with Delaware trailing by seven, Nolan Henderson dropped back to pass.

But the former Smyrna High quarterback had no one to throw to and nowhere to go, so he just started scrambling. Henderson was all the way back at the 45 when he out-ran a Tiger lineman and started sprinting for the first-down marker.

With a Towson defender charging straight at him, Henderson slid — thinking he was far enough to get the first down.

Only he wasn’t.

Henderson came up a yard short, Towson took over the ball and, a few moments later, the No. 21 Tigers were celebrating a gut-wrenching 31-24 win over Delaware in a Colonial Athletic Association dogfight at Johnny Unitas Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

There was just 1:18 remaining when Henderson’s scramble play ended. After scampering from one side of the field to the other, he said he just didn’t know exactly where the first-down marker was.

“Either way, I can’t slide there,” said Henderson. “I kind of lost track of where I had to get to after running around. At the end of the day, I’ve got to do all it takes to get that half yard.”

The redshirt sophomore QB was playing for the first time since missing two games with a concussion. Henderson, though, didn’t know if that played a part in his sliding too soon.

“Definitely, the emphasis this week was to protect myself,” he said. “I don’t know if that was the case or I just lost track of where I was. I’ve just got to lower my shoulder and do whatever I can to get that extra half yard.”

It was a pretty tough second-straight loss for the Blue Hens (2-3 CAA, 4-5 overall), who probably saw their FCS playoff chances end with the setback.

After trailing 24-14 at halftime, Delaware battled back to tie the game at 24-24 on Jake Roth’s 26-yard field goal with 11:08 remaining.

The Hens, though, couldn’t stop Towson from marching 62 yards on 10 plays to retake the lead. Yeedee Thaenrat scored the game-winning touchdown on a two-yard run with 4:54 left.

Receiver Thyrick Pitts finished with four catches for 88 yards against Towson. (Delaware sports information)

But the play that will haunt Delaware’s defense came on the play before.

With the Tigers facing a third-and-15 from their own 16, QB Tom Flacco (17-for-23, 294 yards) threw up a pass for receiver Jason Epps along the sidelines, in the end zone. Blue Hen safety Kedrick Whitehead made contact with Epps as the ball was coming down but Epps also ended up out of bounds.

The officials called Whitehead for pass interference, putting the ball at the two and setting up the touchdown.

“I asked if it was uncatchable but they don’t really like to hear that question any more,” said Delaware coach Danny Rocco. “He (Whitehead) obviously didn’t need to do it. I had the feeling like he could have just let him (Epps) finish the play and it was going to be out of bounds or overthrown.

“I was very disappointed. That was a huge, huge play in the game. We could have held them to a field goal there.”

Third downs were a problem for the Hens throughout the game. Towson was 5-of-8 on third-down conversions in the contest while finishing with a 453-415 edge in yards.

The ending, though, spoiled what could have been a pretty good comeback for Henderson and Delaware.

With Towson up 24-14 and getting the first possession of the second half, the Hens looked like they were in trouble. And, sure enough, Flacco fired a 26-yard pass to Caleb Smith (nine catches-200 yards, one TD) on that first drive.

But the Hens’ Nijuel Hill forced a fumble at the end of the reception and recovered it. On the next play, Henderson launched a 54-yard pass to freshman receiver Jourdan Townsend.

One play after that, Smyrna’s Will Knight scored on a 21-yard run and Delaware was back in the game at 24-21.

The Hens only gave up the one touchdown in the second half while forcing three turnovers.

“I really challenged the defense at halftime,” said Rocco. “I kind of felt like, if we didn’t rise up in the second half, we might give up 48 or 50 points. We played a lot better in the second half on defense.”

“In the first half, we just weren’t getting it done,” said linebacker Drew Nickles. “I don’t think we were really playing that hard. In the second half, we did play better.”

Henderson, who was playing his first game since Oct. 12, almost made a triumphant return. He completed 13-of-24 passes for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

Henderson also made plenty of big plays with his feet — either scrambling to buy time or running for some crucial yards. He netted 48 yards on 15 carries, scoring on a two-yard dive to the pylon for a two-yard TD run.

“He is really, really impressive,” Towson coach Rob Ambrose said about Henderson. “He’s really, really awesome with the ball in his hands. He’s going to be a threat in this league for a while. He’s a very talented young man.”

The Hens have played well in some stretches over the last two games while struggling at other times. They return home to host Albany next Saturday still trying to put a complete game together.

“We have to put it together,” said Nickles. “We probably should have done it by now but we have to do it at some point. We have flashes, definitely. But we’ve got to put it together as a team to be a good team.”

Extra points

Knight ran for a game-high 96 yards on 15 carries. That included a 35-yard run on Delaware’s final drive. … Thyrick Pitts caught four passes for 88 yards, including a 41-yarder. … Townsend had 71 yards on two receptions, including a 17-yrd scoring pass in the first quarter. … Delmar High grad Shane Leatherbury had two receptions for 47 yards for Towson.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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