Villanova skid holding Hens back

Danny Rocco suffered his first losing season in 14 years as a head coach this fall. Delaware sports information/Mark Campbell

NEWARK — Danny Rocco is perplexed as anyone by Delaware’s Villanova problem.

In his five seasons as the football coach at Richmond, the Spiders didn’t have any trouble beating season-ending rival William & Mary, going 4-1 against the Tribe in his tenure.

For that matter, they also went 3-1 against Villanova.

But, in Rocco’s three years at UD, the Blue Hens have pretty much saved their worst game of the season for the Wildcats.

Saturday’s 55-33 drubbing at Villanova’s hands means Delaware has now lost to the Wildcats in an astounding 13 of the last 14 years.

“It’s very troubling,” Rocco said on Monday. “I think it’s painful. It’s very painful to really comprehend and understand the significance and the why behind it.

“Now, here we are. Why is it different? But it’s different.”

While the Villanova game is just one contest, of course, it’s not difficult to see it’s impact on Delaware’s season.

Three years ago, if the Hens could have beaten a 4-6 Villanova team, they would have been 8-3 and in the FCS playoffs, They lost 28-7.

Two years ago, the Wildcats were again 4-6, but that didn’t stop them from dumping Delaware, 42-21. The Hens still made the playoffs but had to play James Madison in the first round instead of less formidable program.

This year, No. 10 Villanova was 8-3 and clearly favored on Saturday. Still, Delaware looked so helpless on defense that it left questions about whether the young Hens were heading in the right direction.

“There’s no doubt that finishing strong is something that’s extraordinarily significant,” said Rocco. “Winning at the end, winning your last game is always going to be significant.”

Rocco didn’t try to sugarcoat the Hens’ 5-7 record this fall. It’s the program’s sixth losing season since 2006.

It was also Rocco’s first losing campaign in 14 years as a head coach.

“For me and for our fans and our team, it was a disappointing ending to a disappointing season,” said Rocco. “I don’t feel like this team underachieved, I just feel like this was a disappointing season for us. We had higher hopes, higher expectations.

“I feel badly for our seniors. Obviously, they were able to have success the last couple years. … To kind of have to go back and suffer through a losing season, I feel badly for them. I think that was difficult. It’s a difficult pill for me to swallow as well.”

So, forgetting the Villanova game for a moment, think of this past season and the young Hens as being like the ongoing renovations at Delaware Stadium.

They don’t look very good right now, but there’s reason to think everyone will be impressed by the time they’re done.

Realistically, the Hens had eight games this season that could have gone either way and went 4-4 in them. And that includes just a 17-14 setback to FBS Pittsburgh.

At times, the defense gave up too many big plays, especially early in games. At other times, the offense couldn’t deliver touchdowns after the defense kept it close.

“This was a season that we had a difficult time maintaining consistency of performance,” said Rocco.

At least part of the problem on offense was that Delaware had to keep going back and forth between quarterbacks. Senior Pat Kehoe and sophomore Nolan Henderson both ended up starting six games but no more than three in a row.

Henderson missed three complete games and most of two others with injuries.

The trouble is that while Kehoe is a big pocket passer, Henderson is a smaller, quick scrambler. Both QBs were also hurt by the fact that the Hens gave up 44 sacks for 245 yards in losses.

“I don’t care who you are or where you’re at, if you’re changing your quarterback every third game, you’re not going to have the consistency that you want to have,” said Rocco.

“Nolan is talented and he is competitive,” Rocco continued. “He’s got it. He’s got the whole package. He’s an exciting kid to coach and he’s an exciting kid to be around. He’s had some hard luck.”

Delaware’s defense, on the other hand, managed just six sacks for 34 yards all season. That only exaggerated the problems the Hens had covering in the secondary as the season went along.

Of course, the defense was also hurt by a number of injuries.

So the silver lining in all this is that the Hens are due to get back 18 of the 22 starters from Saturday’s game. And that doesn’t include standout linebacker Colby Reeder, who missed all season with a back injury.

Henderson, a sophomore, and freshman running back Will Knight seem to have only started showing why the two former Smyrna High standouts could have a memorable two more seasons together.

Rocco has talked a lot in the past couple days about taking a long hard look at Delaware’s roster. But he said he also still believes in its potential.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” Rocco said when asked if he thinks there’s a good deal of talent on Delaware’s roster.

“We need to be successful,” said Rocco. “We need to have winning seasons, we need to be in the post-season and we’ve got to be able to start stacking successful years.

“I was brought here to bring Delaware football back to prominence. And, right now, we’re not there.”

Extra points

Knight finished with a team-high 919 rushing yards, the second-highest total for a Blue Hen freshman. He also scored eight touchdowns. … Junior running back DaJoun Lee averaged a team-best 113.7 all-purpose yards. … Kehoe threw 11 TD passes against eight interceptions while Henderson threw nine TDs against one INT. … Six of the top eight pass-catchers are expected back, led by sophomore receiver Thyrick Pitts (41 receptions-647 yards, 3 TDs). … Sophomore safety Kedrick Whitehead (Middletown) totaled a team-leading 103 tackles. Defensive tackle Cam Kitchen is the only senior among the Hens’ top 11 tacklers. In all, 18 of the top 22 tacklers are underclassmen.

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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