James Madison University silences Hens’ playoff run

Delaware defensive lineman Brandan Hall charges after JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci in Saturday’s playoff game. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

HARRISONBURG, Va. — Delaware’s defense probably played tough enough to win a playoff game on Saturday.

Unfortunately, for the Blue Hens, so did James Madison’s.

And the Dukes’ offense was good enough to make the difference as No. 6 JMU finally put away No. 21 Delaware, 20-6, in the first round of the NCAA FCS Division I football playoffs on a cold, damp Saturday at Bridgeforth Stadium.

Despite struggling mightily to move the ball at all in the first two quarters, the Hens (7-5) trailed the Dukes (9-3) by only a 12-6 margin early in the third quarter. But Delaware couldn’t get any closer as the program’s first playoff appearance since 2010 ended in one game.

“I was extremely proud of our defense,” said Blue Hens coach Danny Rocco. “Our defense fought hard for 60 minutes. We had a lot of seniors out there.

Delaware QB Pat Kehoe returned on Saturday after being cleared from concussion protocol. He completed 13-of-32 passes for 116 yards with a pair of interceptions. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

“They competed hard. It was very important to them and I thought, defensively, we gave our team a chance today.”

JMU, which has played in the last two FCS national championship games, finished with commanding advantages of 316-185 in total yards, 23-12 in first downs and 15 minutes in time of possession.

The Hens went three-and-out on each of their first six possessions — which included a safety on a sack in the end zone. With two minutes left in the first half, Delaware still didn’t have a first down or a pass completion and had amassed just eight yards.

But when the Hens scraped together an eight-play, 44-yard drive late in the second quarter, Jake Roth’s 48-yard field goal pulled Delaware within 12-3 at halftime.

When the Hens then put together a five-play, 52-yard march early in the third quarter, Frank Raggo’s 37-yard field goal closed the gap to just 12-6 with 9:10 remaining in the third quarter.

“I did feel like we were going to break through, I really did,” said Rocco.

JMU, though, answered with a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive to take control. Jake Brown’s eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben DiNucci (23-of-31, 223 yards) gave the Dukes their 20-6 advantage with 4:09 remaining in the third quarter.

Delaware had one more good scoring opportunity when senior linebacker Charles Bell scooped up a JMU fumble and returned it to the Dukes’ 34 with 1:31 left in the third quarter.

Blue Hens’ linebacker Charles Bell can’t quite get to James Madison Ben DiNucci on Saturday. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

A 13-yard gain on a reverse by freshman Austin Haverstrom got the Hens to the 21. The drive, however, stalled there.

Rocco thought about kicking another field goal on a fourth-and-14 but decided to go for it. The drive ended harmlessly with an incomplete pass.

“I don’t know what I might have changed as I look back at it,” said Rocco. “There are a couple decisions that maybe I’d make a little differently. But I didn’t really feel like we were going to get the ball in the end zone very often.

“Maybe I should have kicked a third field goal there but, at the end of the day, that wasn’t going to win the game for us. We had opportunities, we just never really moved into that moment when the opportunities presented themselves.”

JMU was averaged 190 rushing yards per game but was limited to just 93 by the Hens on Saturday. Delaware had a goal line stand, stopping the Dukes at the one-yard line in the second quarter.

Senior linebacker Troy Reeder finished his career with a game-high 16 tackles. While he was proud of the Hens’ defensive effort on Saturday, he said the goal was to win the game, not just keep it close.

“Obviously our defense was succeeding at certain points,” said Reeder. “We tried getting everyone on the same page and playing well at the same time and do whatever we could do to get a spark and win the game.”

Danny Rocco led the Hens to a 7-5 record and their first playoff berth in eight years in his third season as head coach. (Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell)

Early in the week, there was a lot of question about who Delaware would have at quarterback against JMU.

Starter Pat Kehoe was knocked out of last week’s game with Villanova and was still in concussion protocol. The Hens’ next two QBs, J.P. Caruso (shoulder) and Nolan Henderson (ankle), were both sidelined with injuries.

But Kehoe was able to take part in practice most of the week and was finally cleared to play on Saturday.

Unfortunately for the junior, the Dukes kept the pressure on him most of the afternoon. He completed only 13-of-32 passes for 116 yards with two interceptions and five sacks — including the one for a safety.

“JMU did a great job of staying in their rush lanes and applying the pressure,” said Kehoe, who was also playing with a partially torn knee ligament. “The guys on the perimeter did a good job of coverage and made it tough for our guys to get open.

“When we were able to, I’d like to think we did a decent job of moving the ball through the air a little bit. But, honestly, it wasn’t good enough today.”

While Delaware had reached the national title game in three of its last four FCS playoff appearances, there was no realistic chance of that happening this time. The Hens finished the season on a three-game losing streak.

Delaware seniors hope, however, that this was a good start in getting the program back on track.

“We beat the No. 5 team in the country, we beat the No. 10 team in the country and just gave JMU a run for their money,” said Reeder, who transferred from Penn State three years ago. “We made the postseason. Those are two big check marks.

“I think we took a big step forward this year. I’m really proud and happy that I came back and was able to be a part of that in some small way.”

Extra points

UD senior linebacker Buck Jones was ejected from the contest in the first half after being called for targeting on a hit on DiNucci. … The Hens had won six straight first-round playoff games since falling to Marshall and star receiver Randy Moss in 1986. … DeJoun Lee ran the ball 12 times but netted just 27 yards. Andre Robinson had 30 yards on six carries. …. Receiver Joe Walker was actually Delaware’s leading rusher after gaining 38 yards on a reverse. … Defensive lineman Caleb Ashworth (11) and Bell (10) also joined Reeder in reaching double digits in tackles.

Sports editor Andy Walter
can be reached at 741-8227 or

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