Hens top Hornets in Rocco’s debut: UD gets battle from DSU but pulls away 22-3

NEWARK — With Delaware outgaining Delaware State most of the night, Danny Rocco said he was never too worried about losing his first game as the Blue Hens’ coach.

But the Delaware Stadium scoreboard didn’t always agree with him.

Delaware led the Hornets by just five at halftime on Thursday night as both teams struggled to find the end zone.

Finally, though, the Hens found a way to put enough distance between themselves and DelState to put away a 22-3 victory over the Hornets in their football season opener on Thursday night.

Delaware is now 8-0 in the series between the state’s only two Division I FCS programs while also giving Rocco a victory in his debut as the Hens’ head coach.

“I never really felt stressed or pressured,” said Rocco. “I never really felt in jeopardy in coming out of here with a win tonight. I think that calmness allowed our football team to maybe respond there in the second half and finish with some confidence.

Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco was victorious in his debut Thursday night. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

“We certainly didn’t play as well as I thought we would play. … That’s something that we’re really going to have to address.

“We’ve got a lot of work out in front of us but I remain very optimistic,” Rocco said later.

Of course, DelState had something to do with Delaware’s lack of scoring.

The Hens finished with a 432-224 edge in total yards and a 27-11 advantage in first downs. But the game was far closer than last year’s 56-14 Delaware rout.

Anthony Jackson, #11 UD, and Thyrick Pitts, #1 UD, celebrate as the University of Delaware hosts Delaware State University in the opening game of the season at Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware Stadium in Newark.

The Hens’ 22-point total was their lowest in the eight-game series.

“We’re a different team,” said DSU coach Kenny Carter, whose squad went 0-11 last fall. “We’re a totally different team. It’s not even close. We’re bigger, we’re stronger and we have all the things that are necessary.

“The progress is there but we have to finish. I’m proud of our kids, I hate losing and they hate losing. We had an opportunity and we had to finish.”

The contest featured just two touchdowns, both of which were scored in the second half by Delaware receiver Diante Cherry. The senior was named the Nate Beasley MVP for the two TDs while also catching four passes for 83 yards.

On the first TD, quarterback Joe Walker (13-of-26, 192 yards) scrambled and rolled to his right before firing a 31-yard scoring pass to Cherry that stretched the Hens’ lead to 15-3 with 2:48 left in the third quarter.

Then, with 6:02 left in the contest, Cherry scored on a 19-yard reverse. The receiver dove for the pylon at the end of the play.

Xavier Wilcher, #31 DSU, misses an ankle tackle on Joe Walker, #3 UD, as the University of Delaware hosts Delaware State University in the opening game of the season at Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware Stadium in Newark.

He was initially ruled out of bounds at the one but was awarded the TD after officials checked the replay.

Ironically, Cherry started the game by dropping what looked like a sure 54-yard scoring pass from Walker. Cherry was a few steps behind a defender and Walker hit him in stride on Delaware’s second possession of the night.

“I was just trying not to get down on myself,” said Cherry. “You’re going to make some mistakes in the game. I just tried to bounce back from that.”

“If Cherry catches the first post, it’s just a different game,” said Rocco. “I don’t know why it’s like that but it’s true. If he scores a touchdown and the bench erupts … and momentum just flies on our side.

UD fans celebrate as the University of Delaware hosts Delaware State University in the opening game of the season at Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware Stadium in Newark.

“Now he came and responded. He certainly had a very good game. It was just the timing of everything. Joe threw the ball well early, he did not throw the ball well late. Why? I don’t know.”

Junior running back Thomas Jefferson finished with a game-high 102 yards on 19 carries for Delaware.

The Hens’ victory was marred by a serious leg injury suffered by senior cornerback Justin Watson early in the fourth quarter. Watson started to get up after breaking up a long pass but then fell to the ground.

He was taken from the field on a stretcher with his leg in an air cast.

“It was sad,” said Rocco. “It’s always sad. It’s the most disappointing thing about the game when these guys get hurt. It’s not good. … He’s a great young man.”

Delaware led only 8-3 at halftime despite outgaining the Hornets 251 yards to 86 and holding DelState without a first down until late in the second quarter.

The Hens’ first points of the season when defensive lineman Cam Kitchen tackled DSU ballcarrier Mike Waters for a safety late in the first quarter. The play was set up by a nice punt from Maryland transfer Nick Pritchard that pinned the Hornets at their own two.

Connor Lutz, #67 UD, and Collin Wallish, #71 UD, provide some blocking as the University of Delaware hosts Delaware State University in the opening game of the season at Tubby Raymond Field at Delaware Stadium in Newark.

Other than that, though, Delaware had to settle for a pair of short field goals from Frank Raggo after failing to cash in on some good scoring chances.

DelState threatened to really make the Hens pay for squandering those opportunities when freshman QB Jack McDaniels (12-of-28, 165 yards) led the Hornets on a quick nine-play, 68-yard drive just before halftime. But on a third-and-goal from the one, Delaware safety Ray Jones broke through and ran ball carrier Brycene Alleyne out of bounds for a six-yard loss.

This time it was DelState that settled for a short field goal, a 24-yarder from Wisdom Nzidee — which was partially blocked — to close within 8-3.

With nationally-ranked Division I FCS foe Virginia Tech looming next Saturday, Rocco knows the Hens have to play much better.

“I just think we’ve got to learn from tonight,” said Rocco, holding the game ball he was awarded for his first UD win. “We’ve got to improve from this performance tonight. We’ve got to remain committed to our goals. I told them in the locker room, we’re coming to work tomorrow.’”

Extra points

Quarterback J.P. Caruso got in the game for the Hens with about five minutes remaining. The Appalachian State transfer completed 2-of-3 passes for 14 yards. … Freshman linebacker Colby Reeder had his first game cut short when he was ejected for targeting early in the third quarter. Reeder hit DSU QB Daniels just as he started to slide, knocking his helmet off. Reeder will have to sit out the first half of next Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech. … Sussex Tech High grad Kani Kane saw his first action for Delaware, running for 11 yards on four carries late in the game. …. Delaware’s Jake Roth tried a pair of 49-yard field goals in the first half. Both kicks were long enough but went wide.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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