Hens get James Madison University in playoffs

Senior linebacker Troy Reeder is one of 27 seniors on Delaware’s roster who had their careers extended by making the playoffs. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

NEWARK — After eight long years, the Delaware football team is back in the playoffs.

The Blue Hens (7-4) will make their first appearance since 2010 when they travel to James Madison (8-3) next Saturday for a 3 p.m. first-round NCAA FCS Division I playoff game against the Dukes as part of the 24-team bracket that was announced on Sunday.

The NCAA doesn’t match up teams from the same conference in the opening round except when those teams didn’t face each other during the regular season. Delaware didn’t take on the Dukes this season as part of their Colonial Athletic Association schedule.

“It’s pretty unbelievable,” said senior linebacker Troy Reeder, whose team lost to Villanova, 42-21, on Saturday. “With yesterday, you leave your fate in the hands of the committee and you don’t know anyone. Just to come in today and see your teammates and start thinking how amazing it would be to get one more guaranteed shot with those guys. ….

“For us to be the team that ends our drought in the CAA playoffs, I think is a huge step for our program. … Now it’s on to JMU. We’re in it to win it. We want to compete and compete hard. Our goal from the beginning of the season was to win in the postseason.”

“We’re excited about getting this opportunity and look forward to getting to work this week,” said second-year Delaware coach Danny Rocco.

A record six CAA squads made the 24-team playoff field this year with regular-season champion Maine the only one earning one of the eight first-round byes. The Hens faced four playoff teams this season, going 2-2 against them.

JMU has been considered the league’s top team the last two seasons, reaching the national championship game two years in a row. The Dukes were ranked sixth in the STATS FCS poll released on Sunday.

On ESPN’s coverage on Sunday, JMU coach Mike Houston called the Dukes not receiving a first-round bye “fairly disrespectful.”

“I think we’re definitely one of the best eight teams in the country,” he said before adding later, “we can control what we can control. We didn’t get that done during the regular season so we don’t have anybody to blame but ourselves.”

The Dukes beat Delaware only 20-10 in Newark a year ago after the Hens had two weeks to prepare for the game. JMU stumbled in the middle of this season, losing to both Elon and New Hampshire — two teams that Delaware beat.

Houston called the Hens “another really top team nationally.”

“It should be a great matchup,” he said. “Hopefully we can survive and advance.

“At the end of the day, it’s all going to come down to how we respond. We’ve got a big challenge this coming week. We’ve seen Delaware on film a great bit throughout the year. Coach (Danny) Rocco does a great job, year-in and year-out, so it’s going to be a very challenging first-round game. But it’s one we’ll be ready for and hopefully we’ll be able to find a way to win.”

Delaware also played JMU in the first-round of the 1991 I-AA playoffs, losing to the Dukes, 42-35, in overtime.

The winner of Saturday’s JMU-Delaware contest will play at No. 8 Colgate (9-1) in the playoff’s second round.

The Hens finished in a three-way tie for third place in the CAA. Delaware, Stony Brook and Towson all went 5-3 in conference, 7-4 overall and all went 1-1 against each other.

Delaware was ranked No. 10 by the NCAA playoff committee in its one mid-season poll. But that was before the Hens lost their last two games, to Stony Brook and Villanova.

In Sunday’s FCS rankings, Delaware dropped from No. 17 to No. 21, putting them sixth among CAA teams in the poll.

The Hens last played in the NCAA playoffs in 2010 when they lost to Eastern Washington, 20-19, in the FCS national championship game. Delaware has reached the national title game in three of its last four playoff appearances.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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