UD notebook: Blue Hen seniors appreciate playoff opportunity

Hen defenders Ray Jones (7) and Nasir Adderley (23) tackle JMU’s Terrence Alls in the Dukes’ 20-10 win in Newark a year ago. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — When Delaware’s football seniors walked off the field Saturday afternoon, they knew they might have played their last games as Blue Hens.

Considering they’d just been humbled by Villanova, 42-21, they had good reason to wonder if they were still going to make the playoffs.

“There was a definite reality that it could have been it,” said senior linebacker Troy Reeder. “There was a lot of uncertainty.”

So when Delaware got its reprieve on Sunday afternoon, and the NCAA FCS Division I playoff committee gave the Hens an at-large playoff bid, UD’s players felt like they’d been given a second chance at their football lives.

Staring their last game in the face and then getting to play again has made Delaware’s players appreciate this opportunity a little bit more.

Danny Rocco

“I think it ignites some sort of flame,” said Reeder. “We’ve now felt what it felt like to have your season end, essentially. Now we’ve been given life and a second chance. We don’t want to feel that feeling in back-to-back weeks.”

With all that in mind, the No. 21 Hens (7-4) feel like they have nothing to lose when they go to No. 6 James Madison (8-3) for a first-round FCS playoff game on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Despite their two Colonial Athletic Association losses this season, many people still consider the Dukes the league’s marquee program. JMU has reached two straight FCS national championship games, winning the title two seasons ago.

JMU has also won three straight over Delaware.

So Blue Hens’ coach Danny Rocco sees no reason why his players shouldn’t be relaxed and embrace their underdog role.

“I don’t think that our team has played in a game since I’ve been here where there hasn’t been a lot of pressure on our team,” said UD’s second-year coach. “To be quite honest with you, we don’t have any pressure on us here this week. We can go out and put all the chips on the table, go out there and play the best we can possibly play and prepare the best we can play knowing that we’re going to be highly motivated.

“There’s no time of the year like this time of the year. To be in this moment is really a privilege for all of us.”

There are reasons, on paper, for Delaware to feel some optimism about the matchup.

Smyrna High grad Nolan Henderson, a redshirt freshman QB for the Hens, played the entire second half against Villanova. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

JMU’s two CAA losses this season came against teams that the Hens beat — Elon and New Hampshire. The Dukes also beat Stony Brook just 13-10.

Delaware is 6-6 all-time against JMU in games at Harrisonburg, Va.

More immediately, the Hens gave the No. 1-ranked Dukes a battle last season before losing 20-10. That was the game when a lateral bounced up into the hands of a JMU defender, who returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.

“We went over it countless times this year — before we even knew we were playing them,” senior receiver Vinny Papale said about last year’s game. “The backwards pass. … if the ball bounces the other way, maybe it’s a whole different game. We’re excited to get another opportunity this year.”

“This week, right here, is our season,” said senior safety Malcolm Brown. “There is no more looking forward to the next game.”

Kehoe’s status up in the air

Rocco said Delaware is going to prepare as if starting quarterback Pat Kehoe will be ready to play on Saturday.

But he also said he and his staff have made contingency plans, as well.

Kehoe, who has started all 11 games this season, left the Villanova game after taking a hard hit late in the first quarter. The junior didn’t return after being diagnosed with concussion symptoms.

“Really, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rocco. “I’m optimistic with Pat and we’ll know probably more tomorrow (Tuesday). Obviously we have options and we do have different ways that we’re capable of playing the game. We’ve certainly had every conversation you can possibly think of having.

“But, in the moment, we’re hopeful and we’re relatively moving forward as business as usual.”

Redshirt freshman Nolan Henderson (Smyrna) came in after Kehoe but he left after also taking a hard hit. Senior J.P. Caruso, the starter for the final six games of last season, finished the first half before Henderson played the whole second half.

Apparently Henderson and Caruso have alternated as the No. 2 QB throughout the season. Caruso, a grad student in Delaware’s MBA program, usually misses a practice and a half each week because of classes.

The Hens say they have a great deal of confidence in Henderson, who completed 12-of-20 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown while also running for a net 36 yards on 10 carries. The former state Offensive Player of the Year led Delaware on a pair of scoring drives.

“He’s the type of guy that stays out after practice and throws — he does whatever he needs to do to be prepared for that situation,” said senior linebacker Charles Bell. “He played pretty well.”

“From the time the season starts until the last game of the season, you’ve got to keep getting better,” said Reeder. “If you’re the fourth-string guy you’ve got to prepare like you’re the next guy in. Because Nolan did that, he earned the opportunity to be the next man in in Week 11.”

Adderley, Reeder finalists

Reeder and safety Nasir Adderley were named finalists for the Buck Buchanan award, STATS announced on Monday.

The Buchanan Award is presented to the FCS Defensive Player of the Year. The list was narrowed from 40 players to 25.

Adderley has 80 tackles this season, the second highest on the team behind Reeder. Adderley leads the team in interceptions with four and has broken up a team-best seven passes, while scooping up one fumble.

Adderley has started every game in his Blue Hen career and he’s the first defensive player to accomplish that since Sidney Haugabrook in 2001-04.

Reeder is Delaware’s and the CAA’s leading tackler with 115. He has forced a team-high two fumbles this season and has produced 12.5 tackles for loss.

He is the only player in all of FCS to have at least 115 tackles and more than 12 TFLs this fall.

Extra points

Rocco said senior defensive lineman Cam Kitchen and running back Kani Kane (Sussex Tech) are both questionable with knee injuries. … Senior receiver Jamie Jarmon (Indian River) got in briefly against Villanova after missing the last four games with a leg injury.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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