Hens put scare into Pitt, fall 17-14: Panthers rally to avoid upset by UD

The Blue Hens’ Tim Poindexter (2) and Frank Burton (95) congratulate each other after a play on Saturday. Delaware sports information/Ryan Griffith

PITTSBURGH — For three quarters, Delaware was living the dream.

Against a major-college Pitt program it got crushed by five years ago, the Blue Hens were up by four going into the fourth quarter.

But the Panthers woke up just in the nick of time, putting together a winning drive early in the fourth quarter to hold off Delaware, 17-14, before a Heinz Field crowd of 44,141 on Saturday afternoon.

The 20th-ranked FCS Hens (3-2), who were thumped by P{tt (3-2) by a 62-0 margin in 2014, never really had a chance to retake the lead after the Panthers got a 12-yard touchdown pass with only 10:33 remaining.

Delaware netted just two yards on its final two drives and punted on its final five possessions.

Overall, Pitt out-gained the Hens, 443 yards to 170, in total yards.

“I thought we went toe to toe,” said Delaware coach Danny Rocco. “That was the thing that I wanted our team to be able to do. We really talked about how it comes down to one-on-one matchups — their ability to go toe to toe with the man across from them. I thought a lot of our guys did that at a high level.”

Junior receiver Gene Coleman finished with five catches for 61 yards and a TD for the Hens.

Two big turnovers helped give Delaware a shot at the huge upset.

With the Hens trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, Tim Poindexter intercepted a pass at the Pitt 41. Six plays later, quarterback Nolan Henderson fired a quick seven-yard touchdown pass to receiver Gene Coleman.

Coleman (5 catches-61 yards)spun to the outside and made a nice fingertip catch on the play that tied the game at 7-7 with 6:28 left in the first half.

While the Panthers were able to answer with a short field goal that gave them a 10-7 advantage at halftime, the Hens’ defense came up with another big turnover to start the third quarter.

This time, linebacker Drew Nickles stripped a Pitt receiver for a fumble recovery at the Panthers’ 21.

Five plays later, Henderson sprinted out to his right and fired a low five-yard scoring pass to receiver Jourdan Townsend. The true freshman came back to make a diving catch for the TD that put the Hens ahead, 14-10, with 12:53 left in the third quarter.

In his second career start, Henderson completed 14-of-31 passes for 127 yards with the two TDs and no interceptions. But the Smyrna High grad was also under constant pressure and was sacked six times.

Pitt’s ability to control the line of scrimmage limited Delaware to just 43 rushing yards.

The Hens’ longest second-half drive came late in the third quarter when they marched 56 yards on 10 plays to the Pitt 39. But the drive stalled there and Delaware was forced to punt.

Outside of that drive and the short touchdown march, Delaware netted negative-six yards on its other four second-half possessions.

UD quarterback Nolan Henderson (14) talks with receiver Jourdan Townsend after the two hooked up on a five-yard TD pass in the third quarter.

“Offensively, we had our moments,” said Rocco. “We certainly made some plays in the game. We won some matchups both in the passing game and in the run game. But, all-in-all, their defense was a little much for us.

“I think, as the game wore on, we were playing with bad field position and it was just less and less likely that we were going to get something going there.”

But there was still the matter of the Panthers scoring enough points to pull out the win. Pitt had trouble sustaining drives behind backup quarterback Nick Patti (23-of-37, 271 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), who made his first start.

However, on a third-and-17 at its own 37 in the fourth quarter, Patti found receiver Taysir Mack on a 48-yard bomb. Three plays later, Patti fired a 12-yard scoring strike to Mack on a crossing pattern to give the Panthers the lead for good.

Mack had a pair of catches over 40 yards to finish with 124 yards on five receptions.

Once the Panthers took the lead, there wasn’t much the Hens could do to take it back.

Delaware looked like it would have one last chance with Pitt punting with 1:30 remaining. But the Hens went for the block, were called for roughing the punter and the Panthers ran out the clock.

Getting a block was really Delaware’s only realistic chance at scoring, If not the Hens would have had the ball at their own two with 1:18 on the clock.

“The odds of us going 98 (yards) was pretty slim with that defense out there,” said Rocco.

Delaware coach Danny Rocco makes a point to player Tim Poindexter during Saturday’s game at Heinz Field.

The good news for Delaware is that it has an open date next weekend. But the Hens would also like to carry some momentum from Saturday’s effort into the CAA portion of its schedule, which continues on Oct. 12 at Elon.

“We’ve got to really move this thing forward,” said Rocco. “We’ve got to be excited for the second half of our season.

“We came up here to win so we came up short. We did not accomplish our goal. But I am very proud of our team and our coaches. We’ve got some tough kids. We’ve got some kids that want to fight, kids that have the will to win.

“Today we played a team that was pretty darn good,” he added. “Most likely they’d beat us more times than not. The rest of our schedule, we don’t have a team like Pitt. Hopefully that can lead us forward to playing a higher level of ball when we get back in the CAA.”

Extra points

Safety Kedrick Whitehead (Middletown) posted 13 tackles with Nickles adding 12 for Delaware. … Will Knight had a team-high 40 yards on nine carries with two catches for 11 yards. … Pitt is now 17-1 all-time vs. FCS opponents. … Blue Hens’ kicker Jake Roth missed a 36-yard field goal in the first half, making him only 4-of-9 for the season.

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