QB Kehoe making a believer out of Hens

NEWARK — Pat Kehoe went almost three full seasons without playing any real football at Delaware.

Between 2015-17, the only time the big left-handed quarterback got on the field in a game was for one series against Albany last season.

But, apparently, in that 6-fot-4, 240-pound frame was a confident QB just waiting to break out.

“I think confidence starts with yourself,” said Kehoe. “If you’re not confident in yourself, then you’re not going to exude confidence in other people about you.

“I know what my abilities are and I know what I can do. I think I’ve yet to play my best football. I‘m going to keep working week to week to try to become more consistent — more efficient — as a passer.”

The Blue Hens (2-1) may need Kehoe to play his best football when they go to the Fargodome to face No. 1 North Dakota State (2-0) on Saturday at 2 p.m. It will mark just the 13th time since 1979 that Delaware has taken on a No. 1-ranked team.

The Bison also happen to have won six of the last seven NCAA Division I FCS national championships.

Kehoe’s emergence remains probably the most surprising story of Delaware’s young season. After not throwing a pass in a game in his first three seasons, Kehoe is now 44-of-79 for 735 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions.

He’s the first Blue Hen quarterback to pass for 200 yards in each of his first three starts and he’s one of just three FCS QBs in the country with at least six scoring passes and no interceptions this season.

Even though Kehoe was only Delaware’s third-string quarterback last season, second-year coach Danny Rocco said he always thought there was a quiet confidence about the youngster.

“I like the way he overcomes adversity,” said Rocco. “He’s the kind of guy that can go out there and have a bad moment or two, come off to the sideline, kind of get corrected, kind of regroup, go back out there and ‘Oh my gosh, that looks good — it looks real good.’

“He’s been able to do that this year. … There’s something about his confidence that has impressed me.”

“I’m not surprised at all just because I’ve seen how hard he’s worked over the summer, I’ve seen how hard he’s worked in the spring,” said senior defensive back Malcolm Brown.

“We’ve known he’s had a lot of talent the last few years. Now he has a chance to be ‘the guy’ and he’s doing what a lot of guys thought he’d be able to do.”

Fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association in passing efficiency, Kehoe is one of only two starting QBs in the league who haven’t thrown an interception yet.

Of course, not throwing interceptions is easy. The hard part is not throwing them while still being an effective passer.

Rocco said one of the main reasons Kehoe won the starting job is because he was the best QB with ball security in practice.

“You’ve got to take some chances,” said Kehoe. “You’ve got to throw some balls up there that are one-on-one — it’s a contested catch. But you’ve got to take. … smart chances.

“You’ve got to pre-snap look at the matchup and know that, OK, maybe this is a 50-50 ball but, with my matchup, it might work into 60-40 or 65-35. It’s all mental games that you like to play. You study the film to know which guy you can attack.”

Next stop, Fargo

Rocco is one of the few Delaware people who have been involved in a game at the Fargodome.

In 2015, he and his Richmond squad lost to North Dakota State, 33-7, in the FCS semifinals. He said the 18,700-seat stadium is a pretty unique place.

“It’s very real, it’s very exciting,” Rocco said about the atmosphere. “Their crowd. … really tries to impact the outcome and the momentum of the game. So when you would hope you might get a little silence, you’re not going to get it. In the biggest moments, their crowd is really present.”

But while the Hens can work inside the Field House on simulating crowd noise and signaling offensive plays, they won’t be able to duplicate the quality of the players they’re going to face on the field.

Over the last seven-plus seasons, the Bison are an enviable 99-8. Along with the six national titles, they’ve won or shared seven straight Missouri Valley Conference crowns.

Delaware has played great teams in hostile environments before. Last season, the Hens played at perennial FBS Top 25 program Virginia Tech.

While the Hens will clearly be underdogs on Saturday, though, Rocco said there’s a difference in playing an FCS team and an FBS program.

“At the end of the day, we certainly are capable of going up there and winning the football game,” he said. “That’s definitely going to be a consistent thought and message here this week. I know our plays will respond.

“We’ll play our best game of the year. Now, we’re going to have to play our best game of the year.”

Even just playing a competitive game against North Dakota State could be something that helps the Hens when the FCS NCAA playoff berths are selected in November. But Brown said that’s not the way Delaware is approaching the contest.

“We’re going up there to win,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. We’re not going up there (just) to stay around in the game.

“Our goal is to go up there and win. It will mean a lot for the program if we’re able to do that, obviously, them being the No. 1 team in the country and the defending national champions. I think it will be big, it will help a lot with recognition but we’re just focused on playing well and winning the game.”

Extra points

This will be the longest road trip for a regular-season game that Delaware has ever taken. The only longer trips were for playoff games in Sacramento, Calif., Missoula, Mont. and Frisco, Tex. … The Hens are 3-9 all-time vs. No. 1-ranked teams with wins over Youngstown State (1979), Northeast Louisiana (1992) and Northern Iowa (2007). Three other times, Delaware has lost to No. 1’s by three points or less.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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