Hens battle but fall 20-10 to No. 1 Dukes in CAA opener

Delaware defensive backs Ray Jones (7) and Nassir Adderley (23) tackle JMU’s Terrence Alls on Saturday. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — Many times on Saturday afternoon, Delaware stood toe-to-toe with James Madison, slugging it out with the best FCS football team in the country.

But that wasn’t good enough.

Too many times, the No. 1-ranked Dukes were the ones who made the biggest plays.

And when JMU also got the biggest call of the day, it was all too much for the Blue Hens to overcome as they fell to the defending national-champion Dukes, 20-10, on an overcast, windy day at Delaware Stadium.

The hard-earned victory was the 17th in a row for JMU (2-0 CAA, 5-0 overall) and second straight over Delaware (0-1, 2-2), which was playing its Colonial Athletic Association opener.

“I know we played hard,” junior linebacker Troy Reeder said after making 12 tackles. “There’s no question in my mind, without even watching the film yet, I know we played as hard as we could. I think we could play a better game.

The Hens’ Kani Kane, a Sussex Tech High grad, stiff-arms a JMU defender on a 37-yard run. Kane finished with a season-high 81 yards on 13 carries. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

“We’re a veteran group,” he added. “We need to play and execute to the best of our ability every play — no letdowns. Especially against a team like that, it only takes a play or two for them to increase their lead.”

“At the end of the day, we didn’t perform well enough to win,” said senior nose tackle Bilal Nichols. “That’s all it comes down to. We lost. We can’t look at it as we played well because we didn’t play well enough to win, obviously.”

As for the crucial call, that came with 6:53 left in the second quarter and Delaware leading 10-7.

The Hens were at their own 30 when quarterback Joe Walker threw a swing pass to running back Kareem Williams. The ball went off the hands of Williams, who reacted as if it was an incomplete pass.

But JMU defensive lineman Andrew Ankrah scooped up the bouncing ball and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown. The fumble call stood after video-replay officials looked at it.
Replays showed it was a close call either way.

“Certainly I thought that play was the most pivotal play in the ballgame — and probably did win the game,” said JMU coach Mike Houston. “It really swung the momentum heavily in our favor. And, with the way we were playing defensively, you knew that there weren’t going to be a whole lot of points scored.”

Delaware coach Danny Rocco said he didn’t get a good enough look at the play to know what happened. He said only that the play is designed as a forward pass.

“I’m not saying they missed the call,” said Rocco. “It was bang-bang. No doubt, it was the biggest play of the football game.”

Turnovers, as usual, ended up being a huge part of the game.

Delaware linebacker Troy Reeder chases after James Madison QB Bryan Schor in Saturday’s game. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Delaware turned the Dukes over on each of their first two possessions. Reeder’s interception and Cam Kitchen’s fumble recovery gave the Hens the ball at JMU’s 42 and 41, respectively.

But the Hens ended up with only three points out of the two turnovers, getting a school-record 55-yard field goal from Frank Raggo.

In the second quarter, Delaware was facing a second-and-four from the Dukes’ 39. JMU safety Raven Greene, though, intercepted a pass down the sidelines to end the threat.

Then, on the first drive of the second half, a 29-yard return by Khory Spruill set up the Hens at the Dukes’ 47. Two first downs later, Sussex Tech High grad Kani Kane (13 carries-season-high 81 yards) gained seven yards on a first-down run but fumbled the ball at the JMU 15 at the end of the play.

Delaware’s third turnover of the game also ended its last legitimate scoring opportunity of the afternoon.

The Hens hung in until the end, though, before Tyler Gray’s 48-yard field goal with 2:50 left in the game sealed Delaware’s fate.

After back-to-back, three-and-outs by the Hens’ offense in the second half, Rocco even tried switching to QB J.P. Caruso. But the Appalachian State transfer didn’t fare any better, completing only 2-of-7 passes for 42 yards.

“We were looking for a spark,” said Rocco.

Walker completed 5-of-11 passes for 47 yards while also running for 46 yards on 13 carries, many of which were designed running plays.

Delaware’s lone touchdown came early in the second quarter when Walker rolled out to his right before coming all the way back to his left and firing a 15-yard scoring pass to Indian River High grad Jamie Jarmon in the back of the end zone.

Maybe one of Delaware’s more impressive feats came in the third quarter.

Frank Raggo lines up his school-record 55-yard field goal in the first quarter. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

The Hens’ defense endured a 21-play, 74-yard drive by the Dukes that lasted for 9:35. JMU converted three fourth downs on the march — one on a fake punt, one of a juggling catch and one on a penalty.

But Delaware stopped the Dukes at its own 11. And, when JMU missed a 28-yard field, the Hens still trailed only 17-10.

“It was 21 plays?,” Reeder said when asked about the drive. “I think it says a lot about the guys that that wasn’t what we were thinking about. I would have guessed 10 (plays) probably.
“I know we played hard,” Reeder said later. “That’s a mentality that I think is a building block just because I know guys are going to give the effort.”

Extra points

With both teams struggling with the gusty wind at times, JMU kept the ball in the hands of running back Trai Sharp, who finished with 185 yards on a workmanlike 36 carries. … Delaware lost senior linebacker Charles Bell to an undisclosed injury in the first half. Bell was able to walk off the field, with assistance. But he was later taken to an ambulance in a wheelchair. … Kitchen left the game with an injury late in the game. … Defensive lineman Blaine Woodson also had 12 tackles for the Hens with linebacker Jalen Kindle adding 10. … Raggo’s 55-yard field goal broke the school-record 54-yarder booted by Steve Leo against Navy in 1992. It was the third-longest in CAA history. … JMU quarterback Bryan Schor completed 10-of-19 passes for only 93 yards but picked up some big first downs with his scrambling. He ran for 39 yards on nine carries. … The Hens have had three fake punts run against them successfully this season.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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