Blue Hens must match Jackrabbits' physical brand of football in FCS rematch

There isn’t much different between the University of Delaware’s FCS playoff visit to South Dakota State this week and its May 2021 trip to Brookings.

Many key players on both teams who took the field at Dana J. Dykhouse Stadium that afternoon will do so again at 3 p.m. EST Saturday (ESPN+). That includes seven defensive starters for the Blue Hens.

The big difference? Now Delaware knows exactly what it is getting into.

Delaware offensive linemen Fintan Brose (54) and Brock Gingrich (55), here against Hampton on Sept. 24, face a big challenge against South Dakota State's front four.
Delaware offensive linemen Fintan Brose (54) and Brock Gingrich (55), here against Hampton on Sept. 24, face a big challenge against South Dakota State's front four.

That should benefit the Blue Hens, who are now better suited for the imposing task that awaits.

“We know what we’re in for,” Delaware coach Ryan Carty said. “We’re in for a physical game.”

Delaware’s 33-3 loss to South Dakota State in the 2021 spring tournament semifinals was rooted in the hosts' physical superiority. The Jackrabbits pushed the Blue Hens around that day.

They scored four straight first-half touchdowns. On those four series, they ran 22 plays that covered 204 yards. That’s 9.2 yards per snap.

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Delaware did have some success throwing the football, as Nolan Henderson completed 18 of 21 passes for 142 yards. But the running game was powerless and Henderson was sacked seven times, a figure that could have been higher if not for the quarterback’s own elusiveness.

The UD offensive line, though experienced, was coping with some injuries and was overmatched. A week later, Sam Houston did beat the Jackrabbits 23-21 on a late touchdown to win the national title.

South Dakota State tacklers engulf UD running back Dejoun Lee in the 2021 game.
South Dakota State tacklers engulf UD running back Dejoun Lee in the 2021 game.

“They didn’t get much smaller or weaker, unfortunately,” said Carty, who was then Sam Houston offensive coordinator.

“They are very capable physically. Up front on defense those four guys, man are they strong and physical and not unathletic for big, strong guys. They run around well. They chase people down.’’

South Dakota State has numerous qualities, which is why it has won 10 straight since a 7-3 season-opening loss to Iowa. Its strength could very well be that defensive line.

It features two first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference picks in 6-1, 270-pound Caleb Sanders and 6-4, 245-pound Reece Winkelman, both seniors. They were credited with 4½ of those seven sacks in the 2021 game. They’re still there, poised to stir up trouble.

How Delaware’s offensive line performs could very well decide the outcome. That unit has been a work in progress.

Two likely starters, guards Stevon Brown and Bradly Anyanwu, played in the 2021 South Dakota State game, as did reserves Patrick Shupp and James Prince. Only one member of Delaware's starting front, right tackle Fintan Brose, made All-CAA as a third-team pick.

In contrast, South Dakota State, keeping with the midwestern theme of fielding big, bruising offensive fronts, had two first-team All-MVFC picks in 6-6, 305 Garrett Greenfield and 6-4, 305 Mason McCormick.

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Fewer sacks and more success with the running attack in recent weeks indicate Delaware's offensive line is playing better.

“We’re ready,” Carty said Wednesday, adding there was still more important preparation ahead. “ … I think we’re confident we can keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

South Dakota State is No. 1 nationally in FCS in rushing defense, allowing just 71.4 yards per game. Foes have gotten just 2.5 yards per carry, also the best nationally.

Delaware had a season-high 283 yards rushing in Saturday’s 56-17 first-round rout of Saint Francis, including Kyron Cumby’s 111 yards and Marcus Yarns’ 85.

“We’re gonna have to make plays all over the field but, obviously, in the run game it’s gonna be important to open up the pass game and have a balanced attack,” Cumby said.

In addition to going against the Jackrabbits in the spring 2021 title game while at Sam Houston, Carty’s last game as New Hampshire offensive coordinator was a 56-14 quarterfinal loss in 2017 at South Dakota State.

Familiarity with foe and destination certainly helps the Hens on Saturday. More importantly, Delaware goes to South Dakota State with different and, it hopes, more effective strategies and personnel this time.

“It’s a new operation,” Carty said. “We are different, I know that. So whether we were there or not as individuals or I was there with a different team and I also played against this team with another team, it doesn’t matter.

“When we get out there on Saturday, it’s gonna be the 2022 Delaware Blue Hens versus the 2022 South Dakota State Jackrabbits. How we perform against them is going to be dictated on what happens this week in practice and what’s happened to us in the past and how we’ve learned from it.”

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This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Delaware football NCAA FCS playoffs South Dakota State Blue hens