UD-DSU set to renew football series in season opener tonight

Delaware State University football coach Rod Milstead.

NEWARK — Rod Milstead was like so many other Delaware State football players from the past several decades.

All he wanted was a chance to play Delaware.

But it never happened, of course. The Hornets didn’t face the Blue Hens until 2007 when the state’s only two FCS Division I programs were matched up in the NCAA playoffs.

“I was talking with (UD and Dover High grad) Bryan Bossard a couple weeks ago and he made a comment like, ‘Man, we wanted to play you guys,’” said Milstead. “I told him, ‘You don’t understand how much I wanted to play you guys.’

“You can always guess who would have won. You can look at stats and try to add it up. But it was never played so it’s something we can only speculate on.”

Finally, tonight, Milstead will get his chance. Now the DSU’s second-year head coach, he’ll take on Delaware for the first time as the Hens and Hornets open the season against each other in Newark.

The ninth meeting in the series takes place today at 7 p.m. in still-being-renovated Delaware Stadium.

Delaware is 8-0 all-time against DelState. The Hens have won by as few as 10 points and by as many as 45 since the state’s only two FCS Division I football programs first played in 2007.

The average score in the series is 37-4.

The two teams haven’t played since the start of the 2017 season, when Delaware started the year with a 22-3 victory.

Clearly, trying to break through with DelState’s first win over the Hens is Milstead’s biggest goal.

“The game started in 2007, and the results haven’t changed,” he said. “I’m eager to change that. I think it’s time we changed that and start evening the score.

“It’s a great challenge for us,” added the former DSU offensive lineman. “I really believe we have a team that can go up to Newark and compete at the highest level. I’m expecting big things from our team and our program.”

Third-year Blue Hen coach Danny Rocco said he sees a lot of improvement in a Hornet squad that won three of its final games last fall to finish 3-8.

“I think the biggest thing that we’ve been able to look at, dissect and then share is their ongoing improvement,” said Rocco. “This is a team that, if you watch them week eight, nine, 10, 11 last year, versus one, two, three and four, it’s a different football team.

“And it’s a disciplined football team, it’s a well-coached football team. … I do think we’ve done a good job of sharing that message with our team.”

That being said, Rocco has plenty of questions about his own squad.

One year after finishing 7-5 and reaching the NCAA FCS Division I playoffs, Delaware has just three players on defense with starting experience. The Hens also graduated most of their top pass-catchers on offense.

This is Rocco’s 14th season opener as a head coach and he says no coach is quite sure what to expect in his team’s first game.

“I think we all had a chance to watch a little bit of football (on TV) here of late,” he said. “And there was some bad football being played out there. You’re looking at a scenario in an opening game where it’s like anything and everything that you would fear happened in one of the games that I watched.

“So you’re sitting there saying, how do you prevent these things from happening in an opening game? Well, you focus on your team. You focus on your team’s preparation, your team’s ability to be in the moment and have enough situational awareness to understand what the appropriate thing to do in certain situations.”

The Hens and Hornets, who are slated to play again next fall, recently signed a six-year deal that will extend the series through 2030. The new contract includes games being played at DSU’s Alumni Stadium in both 2024 and ‘25.

Of course, none of the players taking part in tonight’s matchup will still be in uniform by then.

For this year’s teams, tonight’s contest has a little bit more immediate implications. After a month of preseason camp in the August heat, they’re just ready to finally play a game.

“We get to play actual football again — real football,” UD quarterback Pat Kehoe said with a smile. “We’ve been beating up on each other for a month.”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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