Henderson, Hens rally past Penn

Smyrna High grad Nolan Henderson threw three TD passes in his first start. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — Delaware had worked really hard to overcome a 14-point deficit against Penn on Saturday afternoon.

And then the Blue Hens almost threw it all away in one careless moment.

The Quakers’ Isaiah Malcome broke off a 69-yard punt return that put Penn in position to tie the score with just 2:24 left.

But Penn coach Ray Priore decided to go for a two-point conversion and the victory, the pass fell incomplete and No. 20 Delaware was able to escape with a 28-27 win over the Quakers on a hot Saturday afternoon at Delaware Stadium.

“I said on the radio (post-game show), ‘Get used to it, because we’re going to have a few more games like this,’” said Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco. “I’m just hopeful that we can find a way to finish and win those games.”

The dramatic finish overshadowed a big performance from sophomore quarterback Nolan Henderson in his first collegiate start. The Smyrna High grad completed 20-of-29 passes for 260 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Fittingly then, it was Henderson’s old friend and former Smyrna teammate, Will Knight, who put the Hens (3-1) ahead for good on a six-yard touchdown run with 7:36 remaining.

Ultimately, however, it was Jake Roth’s PAT kick — which put Delaware up 28-21 — that provided the winning point.

As expected, Henderson’s elusiveness in the pocket ended up being important, even though he was sacked three times.

“This guy’s going to be a great player — I’m not saying he isn’t one right now,” Rocco said about Henderson. “To be the starting quarterback, in your first start, and get a dramatic fourth-quarter win, it’s a big deal. And that’s something we need to celebrate.”

“I think his biggest asset was his ability to keep the play alive,” said Priore. “He was very, very quick in the pocket.”

Will Knight (25), a Smyrna High grad, is congratulated after his six-yard TD run with 7:36 left put the Hens to stay.

“It was definitely special,” said Henderson. “It’s definitely a blessing to be able to start for a program like this. But I really just tried to treat it like another game.

“I’ve been out there before. The only difference is I’m coming out for the first play.”

It looked like it might be a much more comfortable win for Delaware when Henderson and the Hens started the game with a quick five-play, 72-yard scoring drive. Henderson completed all four of his pass attempts on the drive including a 29-yarder to receiver Thyrick Pitts for the touchdown.

Pitts also had a big day, finishing with five receptions for 128 yards.

But the Quakers (0-1), who were playing their season opener, took over after that. Penn built a 14-7 halftime advantage.

It might have been worse than that, too, except for an interception by linebacker Drew Nickles and a fumble recovery by linebacker Anthony Toro.

But in a game where Penn out-gained Delaware, 462-360 in total yards, the Quakers didn’t go away in the second half. An eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive to start the third quarter put the Hens in a 21-7 hole.

Finally, though, Delaware woke up.

The Hens scored the game’s next three TDs. Henderson found Gene Coleman for an 11-yard TD pass and then tight end Bryce DeMaille for a 17-yarder that knotted the score at 21-21 with 3:10 left in the third quarter.

Finally, Knight (7 carries-46 yards) swept in for his six-yard TD run that capped off a five-play, 65-yard march and gave Delaware its 28-21 with 7:36 left in the game.

Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell Delaware tight end Bryce DeMaille is congratulated after his 17-yard touchdown catch tied the game at 21-21 with 3:10 left in the third quarter.

On each team’s next four drives after Penn took its 21-7 lead, the Hens out-gained the Quakers, 239 yards to 76. The only thing that almost kept Delaware from winning was Malcome’s 69-yard punt return and the ensuing two-point attempt.

On the two-point conversion try, Penn quarterback Nick Robinson (18-of-27 for 193 yards, three TDs) had some time to look for a receiver. But his low throw to a receiver just inside the end zone hit the turf.

The Quakers tried an onsides kick but it went out of bounds. A strong run by Andre Robinson (12 carries-61 yards) gave Delaware a first down before it ran out the clock.

Safety Kedrick Whitehead (Middletown), who had a career-high 14 tackles, said the Hens just tried to play good defense on the climactic two-point conversion attempt.

“At the time, you’ve just got to keep your composure,” said Whitehead. “Even if they do score, we know our offense has the capability of driving the field. Of course, we’re going to do our jobs. But we knew, at the end of the day, we had the weapons even if it didn’t go our way.

“That was exciting,” he admitted about seeing the pass fall incomplete.

After a four-overtime win over Rhode Island followed by last week’s loss to No. 1 North Dakota State, Rocco had the feeling the Hens might be a little worn down on Saturday. He tried to do some things to compensate, like substituting players frequently.

In the end, Delaware had just enough to get past Penn.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” said Rocco. “It would have been very unlikely that we would have been at our best today.

“I called upon other people to step up today. We purposely substituted a lot more today. Some how, some way, in that formula, there was just enough to be there and secure the victory at the end. I was proud of the way we competed.”

Extra points

Henderson did gain 33 yards on 13 carries, including 16 on one run. But he netted minus-two yards, in part because he was sacked three times. … Henderson’s 260 passing yards were the most for a Delaware QB in his first start since Trent Hurley in 2012. It was more than Matt Nagy, Joe Flacco and Pat Devlin had in their debuts. … The Hens was called for only one penalty, their lowest total since they also had only one against Wake Forest in 2016. … Besides his interception, Nickles was also in on a fourth-down stop with 14 minutes remaining. … Penn converted 7-of-8 third-down opportunities in the first half but was only 2-for-7 in the second. … Delaware played again without injured starters DaJoun Lee (running back) and Johnny Buchanan (linebacker). … The Hens, who were facing Penn for the first time since 1983, are now even at 3-3 in the all-time series. … Delaware goes to Pittsburgh next Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. contest.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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